I wake up in the morning and before I distract myself with anything from the mundane world, my knees hit the floor in prayer. Our Shrine to the Household Gods shines and glimmers in the little tea lights that have been placed just so, ornamenting the gilt cult images of the God Ptah and His Holy Family. I light myrrh resin incense on a brazier of charcoal and waft its fragrance into a sweet cloud for the Gods to enjoy. “Men nek irit Heru…”, I half-whisper as I raise the palms of my hands in the ancient gesture of worship. “Men nek irit Heru. Take unto yourself the Eye of Heru…take unto yourself the Eye of Heru”.
An Egyptian alabaster votive bowl is filled with powdered sugar-topped lemon tart, another topped off with red wine. Yes, the Gods love their sweets, their alcohol, and in my household, both of these are given in profusion. In the meduw-netjer, the divine language of ancient Egypt, I recite the traditional offering prayers, inviting the Netjeru-Gods to “bestow the giving of life” for my household. I vigorously shake a sistrum- an Egyptian ceremonial rattle- to conclude my worship, after I have silently offered my own personal prayers for the ears of the Gods. I bestow my prostrations to the Great God Ptah, Hearer of Prayers, and, in our temple, King of the Gods. His gold-covered Kar-Shrine (or naos) containing a small cult image of the God now stands open to receive the morning rays of the sun’s light, and life in my household can spring to action once more.
I readily admit that I live an unusual life. Our living room has no television. Yes, we have the obligatory couch and (book covered) coffee table, however, in the place most people reserve for their entertainment center dominated by the almighty flat panel television, my husband and I have installed our Shrine to the Household Gods, which can be seen from every vantage of our flat. It creates of our home environment a sacred refuge and place of peace from the stresses of the outside world. It brings our sometimes fragmented focus back to the reality of the Gods in Their place at the very center of creation. This is a space for prayer and ritual, where our innermost aspirations may be expressed or realized, but it is also the fuel parlor, the generator for my daily work as an iconographer.
An iconographer practices a trade quite different from that of other artists, who often explode with a creativity fueled by a personal drive to explore and express the human psyche. The modern artist has at her or his center the Self with a capital “S”. My experience. My understanding. My feelings. My expression. These are the seeds that sprout the trees of modern art, which is dominated, of course, by the modern artist. However, in iconography there has been, historically, much less of an emphasis on the iconographer, on his identity or persona, and almost entirely a focus on the icons themselves. Iconographers are not commissioned to create their own reality, but are instead asked to express time-honored ideals concerning how the Divine should be depicted, and the most important part of this is the impersonal nature of the work itself.
That is not to say that the creation of an icon requires detachment. Quite the opposite, if the iconographer is true to his calling. Iconographers are called like priests and nuns to their craft. There is a drive behind the work that comes from the reservoir of the Sacred, a current of energy passing out from a deity or deities. It is this higher energy or inspiration that fuels the creation of icons. So, the work is impersonal in that it is not the artist’s ego or personality that is driving the work or providing the subject matter. Icons do not glorify the personality of the iconographer, they glorify the Sacred, the Divine, and many well known icons remain the output of unknown painters.
In the case of ancient Egypt, we but rarely are privy to the names of individual painters and artisans, whose masterpieces may be household names and instantly recognizable. Take the fabulous golden burial mask of Tutankhamun, as one example. This tomb treasure is often hailed as an “icon of ancient Egypt”, in the sense that its fame and preciousness have come to represent, in the minds of the masses, the greatness of Egyptian civilization. However, I would add that the mask of Tutankhamun is also an icon in the original religious context of the word.
To the ancient goldsmiths and jewelers who created it, the burial mask of Tutankhamun was a piece of sacred machinery, through whose great magic the deceased King Tutankhamun would be transformed into a living manifestation of the Sun-God Ra. The mask itself, though carrying upon it a stylized representation of Tutankhamun, is in fact intended to represent the God Ra Himself- gold of skin with lapis lazuli hair- as the indestructible Lord of Heaven, untouched by death and wholly divine. The Egyptians saw such treasures not as works of art, in the manner that we see them, but as holy objects embodying the powers of the Gods. They were, in short, icons.
Not only the incomparable treasures of Tutankhamun, but so many works of ancient Egypt had a sacred purpose that took them beyond the realm of the human viewer. So many works of art that stun and captivate us today were simply never intended to be seen again by human eyes, once they had been created and brought ceremonially, magically to life. We do not know the names of the craftsmen who produced them, their genius preserved only in the astounding objects they gave life to.
To the ancient Egyptians, the personality of individual artists was practically insignificant. Their mode of religion called for cult images wrought from the most precious substances on earth…gold, lapis lazuli, feldspar and turquoise, which represented to the Egyptian mind substances forming part of the anatomy of the living Gods. The task of the artist was to give earthly bodies to the Gods, Who would be invited to take up residence in the precious cult images once they had been ritually awakened. Thus the ego or personal experiences of the artisan served no purpose to the Egyptians, who saw ceremonial images as the dwelling places of their gods, not as representations of individual mortals. My, how things have changed!
Enter me. My profession must be, at times, an experiment, for I am not an ancient artisan of cult images dwelling in a nation where my gods and their servants are supported by the state. Gone are the monumental temple sanctuaries filled with incense and solid gold cult images. What we have today are small ceremonial centers and home-shrines, these lovingly filled with not-so-solid gold images of our ancient gods. The incense and offerings have remained, though not on the scale consumed by the Gods in ancient times. Gone too are the monolithic stone statues of the Gods and kings that led way to the imperial sanctuaries. These things belong to a past that has now become a tourist trap. What we servants of the old Gods have is the Gods Themselves, Who continue to inspire us in ways that may fall outside the realm of traditional pomp and circumstance, but in circumstances that are, nevertheless, effective as a living religion.
In my world, it is the icon, a small panel covered in intricate details, gold and semi-precious stones, that has as much meaning as a massive stone temple or a solid gold cult image. Those things have meaning too, but for the past, and since we are living in the present, and the Gods are ever-present, our task is to find new traditional ways of honoring Them and asking for Their intervention in our world.
So, every morning, after I have awoken our household shrine with a heady cloud of myrrh or sandalwood, I sit in my studio at my massive table, where a modern panel of wood, which may initially appear inconsequential, will be transformed into an image of ancient splendor. It is not only gold or lapis or amethyst that will make this little panel something of value, but, much more importantly, the love of the Gods that is poured into its glittering metal and mineral pigments. Such love for the Sacred is what fuels and entices me to work fervently, day after day, in my own divine world.
All text copyright © 2015 Rev. Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa