top of page

Living In a World of Symbols

With Adriano Bulla
Part 3

Adriano Bulla

I was at the British Museum not long ago with a friend, and, admiring Egyptian Art, he pointed out, as many do, a certain 'lack of realism', yet we both agreed that they could paint realistically; very often, there are incredibly realistic details in Egyptian Art, thus, their choice to look at the world from a symbolic vantage point must have been conscious. You have been using symbolism in both your icons and your poems, so, no one better to give us an insight than you... What do you think we gain by looking at the world in a symbolic way?

Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa

Speaking of the British Museum, they happen to have in their Egyptian collection, as I'm sure you saw, wall-paintings from the tomb-chapel of Nebamun, which were painted during the 18th Dynasty, one of the high points of Egyptian art. There is one painting in particular that is exceptionally fine, that I think illustrates what you are saying very well. In this painting, Nebamun is shown hunting wild fowl in the marshes in his papyrus skiff, accompanied by his wife and son. But it is the flora and fauna of this painting that give it its real charm and character, but also demonstrate the sophisticated degree of realism that Egyptian draftsmen and painters could achieve.

There are different species of waterfowl present in the composition, and each is portrayed in what I feel is a very naturalistic style, with feather markings and coloration true to nature. Each bird seems very animated, behaving in a way you'd recognize in the natural world. There is this great clump of papyrus reeds supporting the community of birds, and the painters have added nests of eggs and even butterflies darting here and there...very delicate lines on the butterflies. There is also this fabulous orange and striped tomcat with very convincing whiskers, the fur marked out in such a way that really convinces the eye that this is modeled on a live cat! He's even biting into the splayed wings of a duck while his front and back paws claw into other birds he's captured. It's all highly realistic and energetic, not stiff or formal at all.

British Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

So yes, I would agree with you that the Egyptians could, and did paint realistically, and that they made a conscious choice to depict subjects in a two-dimensional style that we today look upon as lacking realism. But then, we would have to examine the differences between the view and function of ancient Egyptian art and our own. We can't assume that the Egyptians had tastes and values matching our own, because they didn't...not at all.

The Western view of art, since the time of the Italian Renaissance, is that two-dimensional painting in particular should mirror the world we see as true to life as possible, thus the obsession with mathematically correct perspective. This invention affected every aspect of the arts when it was introduced, and that very much included religious compositions and iconography. Mathematically correct perspective was a tool for creating religious compositions that actually looked real, completely true to life, regardless of the miracle or Biblical event being portrayed. Perspective was a way artists could convince the eye of the viewer that a two-dimensional space, on a flat panel or wall, was in fact a three-dimensional space filled with real people and real objects. The great exercise in painting during the Italian Renaissance, the quite revolutionary thing that happened, was a gradual and complete break from the flat, two-dimensional style of painting, which really characterizes compositions prior to the introduction of mathematically correct perspective.

Madonna of the Carnation by Leonardo da Vinci, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Ever since that time, the craft of painting, the entire culture and understanding of art, has been founded on the rock solid notion that paintings need to reproduce nature as it is...that things need to be depicted as the eye sees them. Of course, that is until Picasso, the Cubists and Expressionists rebelled against these notions and decided to paint things as the mind saw them, as the emotional state processed them, not according to the rules of perspective.

The ancient Egyptians didn't have a word for art. They didn't have anything close to the concept of art that we have today. We think of in modern something that expresses the personality and personal experiences of the artist. A painter presents us with their individual reality, their own understanding or investigation into the things they see or feel. Looking at modern paintings, we can very often get a sense of who the artist is, how they are seeing their world, which is our world, too. Modern art holds up a mirror in front of us, allowing us to see ourselves from the artist's point of view. There is so much of the artist in modern art. We know a Dali when we see one...a Picasso, a Koons, a Warhol. These artists conveyed so much of their personality through their styles that their works are inseparable from their character. It is almost as if the artist was as significant as the artwork!

on unfamiliar territory. Except in a very few rare cases, we do not know the names of individual artists or the specific works they created. Egyptian documented in tomb scenes that give us a window into important industries...worked in something akin to guilds, in workshops that show us a collaborative effort. Individual skills were pooled in order to produce sculpture, jewelry, funerary objects, temple furniture and the like. Egyptian craftsmen were bringing their skills together as joint specialists of particular crafts, not working in isolation.

But there is a much more significant difference between ancient Egyptian art and our modern art. Egyptians weren't producing art as mere decoration, nor were they creating art as an expression of individual artists and how they experienced their life or world. There was no separation of "church" and state in ancient dividing line between religious experience and daily life. Every aspect of Egyptian culture was woven into the fabric of religious experience, and that very much included what we today call art.

Egyptian art was governed by a fairly strict set of rules that standardized the depiction of people and objects. These standards reflected not how the Egyptians actually saw the world with their eyes, but how they felt the world needed to be seen...through the eyes of their religion, through the eyes of magic. The Egyptians took images very seriously, as actual embodiments of the force or power acting inside the things represented. Temple scenes, tomb scenes, statues and hieroglyphs; these were living things to the Egyptians, not merely inanimate decorations. In the Egyptian cosmological view, representations of any kind carry the seeds of creation in them, the vital power of the Gods that can be equally dangerous or creative. There are multiple examples of the ritual disarming of certain images in order to counter any threat they may contain; hieroglyphs of vipers or serpent-demons are slashed or depicted with sharps knives piercing them. Statues could be defaced, could have important features mutilated or hacked off in order to disarm their magical presence. This idea of a magical force being resident in images underpins the ancient Egyptian experience of religion, which was the cement that held their civilization together, that gave it cohesion for more than three-thousand years.

When we look at ancient Egyptian images today, through our modern eyes that are influenced by how modern art tells us we should be seeing our world, there is this clash with reality that jumps out at us. People are shown in profile, for example, with the head in full profile, making the lines of nose, jaw and lips easily recognizable. But the eye is not shown in profile; it's shown as a full frontal view, planted on the side of the head with the eyebrow. We do not see the shoulders in profile, but rather as fully frontal,

which is then combined with a profile view of the chest, with single breast or pectoral represented in profile. The arch of the back and musculature of buttocks and legs are also seen in profile views. Feet too are seen in profile, sometimes with all five toes visible. When first seen, such images can read very strangely from our modern artistic sensibilities.

But we need to understand that the Egyptians are not attempting to give us a literal view of reality. What they were doing was showing the most recognizable views of any given object all at the same time. In this way, in my mind, the Egyptians were the first Cubists, because they were showing multiple views of the same person or object fused together, as if being seen all at the same time. The Egyptians knew that a person's profile was one of the clearest ways of identifying distinguishing features; also, that shoulders seen head-on are much more impressive to the eye than in profile. They obviously wanted to place an emphasis on profile views of the curve in a person's back, and the pronouncement of buttocks and calves, which are strongest when seen from the side. But these are aesthetic considerations I've been talking about, which are only a fraction of the unwritten rules governing Egyptian art.

Relief of Ramses II in Seti I's temple at Abydos by Tatiana Matveeva 2013

First and foremost, we have to come back to this sense that images have a spiritual or supernatural function, if you will. Egyptian two-dimensional representations of people or deities, like those we see in temples or tombs, had a function on a magical level, not a responsibility to the visual or aesthetic. Think about it for a moment. Look at the incredible industry that went into cutting and decorating the monumental royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings; tombs like those of Horemheb and Seti I. These are amazing feats of engineering and artistry. In the 18thDynasty tomb of King Horemheb, we find meter after meter of delicate bas-reliefs, raised ever so slightly from a background that had been cut away. But aside from the stonemasons and artisans, and then the priests and funeral cortege, who was ever going to see these masterpieces? Only the king and the gods in the Afterlife. These were magical images, crafted to live in a magical reality not dependent on being seen by mortal eyes.

We just can't conceive of this today...conceive of any artist creating something so beautiful, so meaningful, and then locking it away forever in the darkness, with the intention that it will never be seen by human eyes again. But the ancient Egyptians did this as a significant part of their religious expression, because images were part of a spiritual technology by which resurrection and immortality were achieved. For the Egyptians, sacred images, those of the temple or tomb, had a magical life of their own. They were living and breathing components of a sacred language, a dialogue between the realm of the gods and the material world we inhabit. So, their purpose was not to look beautiful, to decorate, to express the feelings of this artist or that artist, but to achieve the aims of the magic of immortality.

The Egyptians lived through a world view in which symbols weren't just things that stood for ideas, but were, in fact, energetic embodiments of the very things they represented. We see the stars and stripes of the American flag, say, but we don't actually see the flag as being America. It is a reminder. It tells a story. It represents ideals and beliefs and the values of the American way of life. But we know that America is not a flag. The flag stands for the idea of America. But the ancient Egyptians did not see symbols in this way. For them, the image of a thing could, through a process of magic, become the thing so represented. The wax model of a national enemy, for example, could become the embodiment of your enemy's power or abilities, and to cut it up, to destroy it, was to actually and physically render your enemy impotent. So, the Egyptian experience of symbols or images was on quite a literal level, instead of on the subconscious, imaginary or figurative level.

I'm not sure that it's possible or relevant for most people in the modern world to experience symbols from the ancient Egyptian vantage. I do, because I am a Kemetic, a practitioner of the ancient Egyptian religion, and for me it comes very naturally to see my world and my gods through the lens of Egyptian symbols. I'm an iconographer working primarily within the Kemetic tradition of cult images, so I too see the symbols and images I create as the living embodiments of active divine principles. I don't see symbols...hieroglyphs, being static or inanimate. To me they are alive, dynamic, possessing a life, a power of their own, aside from also being objects of worship and devotion.

But I can try to answer this question in terms that can mean something to non-Kemetics, too. I think of symbols, especially religious symbols, as the language of the Soul.

But I can try to answer this question in terms that can mean something to non-Kemetics, too. I think of symbols, especially religious symbols, as the language of the Soul. Symbols can help us access our intuitive faculties, our deepest processes of engaging with our world on a level other than mere physicality. We are all too familiar with the physical, sensual qualities of our know, the qualities that our five physical senses can reveal to us. However, we also know that there is an inner world within the outer shell. There is an emotional world, if you will, a world that isn't dictated by our physical senses, but rather through what we might call our mental faculties, our cerebral self. Symbols can stand for these intellectual faculties, can help us to approach them and work with them. Symbols can evoke powerful emotions, perhaps emotions we weren't dealing with on a conscious level, and a particular symbol can trigger something in our subconscious that suddenly gives us clarity or a means of approaching that hidden part of our mind. So, in this way, I think that symbols can be highly effective in giving us a vantage point of the invisible, the ephemeral, even.

bottom of page