An Intriguing Self-portrait, c.1345 BC

Bak, Self-portrait with his wife, Taheri (c.1353-1336 BC) Quartzite. Egyptian Museum, Berlin.

One of the earliest surviving self-portraits from antiquity is that of Bak, chief sculptor to the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten. It is beautifully preserved in Berlin (above) and is very intriguing given Western art history’s traditional description of Egyptian art as something foreign.

As pharaoh, Akhenaten reformed Egypt’s hidebound religion by making the sun, Aten, the sole deity and creator of all things. He got rid of Egypt’s multiple gods and even the need for priests. In the surviving sculpture of the period he is the sole link between God and his people, a kind of prophet-figure with whom all could identify as the state of human perfection. There are clear similarities here between Akhenaten’s revolutionary philosophy and those of the Inner Tradition, especially the belief in each individual’s power to perfect themselves without dogma or the clergy.

In his self-portrait Bak stands next to his wife in a shallow niche. She is dressed conventionally down to the ankles in a body-hugging shift and has no individual features to identify her. She is Woman. He, however, probably had the distended belly and breasts that mark his figure. Whatever associations those features had then, as signs of power and wealth possibly, they appear strikingly symbolic on another level as well, especially when situated next to those of his wife. His breasts are arguably larger than hers and he is the one who appears “pregnant”, not her. Is Bak, then, a fertile artist with an androgynous mind?

On a second self-portrait Bak placed an inscription stating that the pharaoh himself taught Bak to make art which sounds unlikely on the literal level, that he learnt his craft from the Pharaoh. It might instead mean that it was through Akhenaten's philosophy that he learnt his art because craft alone is never art; craft needs philosophy and especially one in tune with the Inner Tradition, the perennial philosophy of mankind. The little we know of the new, monotheistic, solar-based religion suggests that it may have been. If so, Bak could have responded to Akhenaten's monotheistic religion, the creative powers of his solar God and the perfection of his Pharaoh. In the Inner Tradition, as in art, unity is all. Little known, such symbolism can be found throughout Western art of the modern period and is regularly revealed on EPPH

See a host of examples under the themes AndrogynyDivine Artist, Artist as King and Conception.

Reader Comments

His wife demonstrates her affection with her arm around BAK and her hand on his shoulder! something so rare in Egyptian art pre Akhenaeton

11 Aug 2014

Leave a Comment

The EPPH Blog features issues and commentary.