|"Bast the Light-Bringer"/ An original Kemetic icon by master iconographer Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa/ Extra fine watercolor, 22 karat gold, Indian star ruby, lapis-lazuli, fire opal, Austrian crystal|
An Intimate Interview with Iconographer & Poet
As you know, Coleridge would have agreed with you that a way of knowing the Divine, possibly the best way we have as Humans, is through symbolism. I was admiring, for example, 'Bast the Light-Bringer', could you explain how it makes us closer to the Divine and its symbolism?
Firstly, I think it's important for me to say that this icon, 'Bast the Light-Bringer', was conceived as a tribute to Lady Olivia Robertson, co-founder of The Fellowship of Isis, who passed away in 2013. She was an extraordinary spiritual teacher and mentor to me, and when I heard the news that she had passed, the first thought that struck me was an image of the Goddess Bast standing with Her golden Sistrum in front of the holy Ished Tree, the sacred Persea Tree. Lady Olivia had a special relationship with Bast, so I believe that's why I was tuning in to the Goddess at that time.
As for how it makes us closer to the Divine...this icon, an icon in general, I'd have to answer that it depends on your perspective, whether or not you as a viewer are receptive to the kind of energy or messages being conveyed by the icon. One aspect of my work that I constantly need to address, an aspect that I think is unique to the type of iconography I'm working with, is the fact that the religious culture I'm honouring is believed by most people to be an extinct one.
People see images of Egyptian deities, images of gods and goddesses and hieroglyphs, and they immediately think oh, Egyptian mythology. So, even though I'm classifying my work as iconography, as religious work, people on the whole aren't used to thinking of ancient Egyptian images as being sacred, as being objects of worship or devotion. For most people, ancient Egyptian religion is just that, ancient, past tense, something that belongs in the archaeological remnants of a dead pagan culture. People are saturated with images of Tutankhamun's treasures, mummies, pyramids, et cetera, and for them ancient Egypt is a curiosity, a historical fascination, not something that's the source of valid spiritual fulfilment. For the majority of people, the images of Egypt's deities are just so many idols, figments of a pagan past and its false gods.
An important part of what I'm striving to do is revive the connection humankind once had with its original and ancient gods, prior to the advent of monotheism and rise of Christianity. Polytheism is far older than monotheism, and the gods of Egypt, the netjeru, were worshiped for much longer than monotheism has existed. A very significant part of the practice of Kemetic or ancient Egyptian polytheism, and the same can be said for other Near Eastern cultures, is the emphasis placed on cult images, images that allowed a portion of the deity's essence to remain active in the temple environment where humankind could have access to it.
The same kinds of cult images, using the same kinds of iconography, remained virtually unchanged for thousands of years, and this means that those symbols, signs and deity forms had a tremendous build up of power in them. That power, that sacred blessing is still active in those forms today, and I see my job as an iconographer as that of accessing that power and blessing in the current era, where more and more people are rekindling the ancient polytheistic faiths of humankind...through reconstructionism and neo-paganism.
So, what value does 'Bast the Light-Bringer' have? How can it make us closer to the Divine? If you can accept that the Gods still have something to say to humankind, if you can see the validity of an ancient religion remaining as an active and living presence in our world, then my icons can be a refuge and a source of empowerment. I believe that my icons send out a strong message declaring that the Gods have not abandoned us, nor have they lost a connection with the human soul. The Gods are living presences in creation, in our material world, and they speak to us, flirt with us, give signs to us, and continue to court our love and devotion. They bring us healing, love, the gift of life itself...they are ever-present and omnipresent.
Something that continually emerges in my work is this struggle between order and chaos, light and dark, life and death that becomes a foundation for the symbolism at play in my icons. I always begin at this place where the netjer, the deity is rising up as a challenge to the forces at work against creation. I think this is something one finds very prevalent in Kemetic, ancient Egyptian iconography. The entire experiment in ancient Egypt was to preserve the cosmic order, Ma'at, that had been established at the time the world was created. All the temples were a stronghold for Ma'at, where the precise order of ritual actions was maintained as a form of spiritual technology to guard against asfet or chaos.
In 'Bast the Light-Bringer' we see the Goddess standing in front of the Ished Tree at dawn. This was the time of day when, according to the solar mythos, the Sun-God Ra was reborn after His great nocturnal struggle against the serpent-demon Apep. It was at dawn when the blood of Apep was spilled across the eastern sky, which reads as the bright pink stain spreading through the heavens just at sunrise. We see the primary scenario in this mythos taking place at the base of the Ished Tree, where the Book of Coming Forth By Day, Pert-em-hru...the so-called 'Book of the Dead'...tells us that the Great Tomcat dispatches the demonic serpent with his knife. But we know that the Goddess Bast was also associated with the Great Tomcat, and that is the association I am making here. Instead of decapitating Apep with a knife, I have given the Tomcat long silver nails, which pin down and slice through the scales of the serpent.
You will notice that the back foot of the Goddess is shown stamping on the tail of the serpent-demon, and this is, of course, the working of magic. Images in the Kemetic tradition are a form of shaping reality...like we discussed before, they are a means of actually changing or impacting the material world. They aren't just for decoration, and the symbols used in sacred images aren't just visual placeholders for ideas. Divine symbols hold a literal reality, a magical force that has its own independent life; so, if one depicts a chaotic being...one that has the ability to disrupt the creation process, one must disarm that image through the use of more powerful images or symbols against it. That's why one finds images of Apep or vipers or other noxious creatures pinned down with staves or knives.
The Ished Tree is the sacred tree of Ra at Annu or Heliopolis, upon whose leaves were written the names and regnal years of all the kings of Egypt. In this instance, the presence of the Ished Tree embodies the proper order of life in the cosmos, the divine order or Ma'at established by Ra. In a manner of speaking it also represents the Sun-God Ra Himself, and that's indicated by the raised reliefs of some of the leaves, which I've gilded with 22 karat gold. Gold is always solar in my icons...it represents the skin of the Sun-God, His indestructible nature.
It was important for me to include birds in this icon, not only as symbols of life, the power of life to overcome death, but also as symbols of the Sun-God, Whom Lady Bast is representing, of course. These are the menets, swallows or martins, which stand in the prow of the night barque of the Sun-God, and hail His triumphant progress against chaotic night. I have one swallow facing right, and one facing left; these being the directions of west and east respectively.
The root of Bast's name is 'bas', an ointment jar, so it would appear that the name Bast or Bastet means something like 'She of the ointment jar'; that's just one interpretation, of course. I decided to place a 'bas' jar in the Ished Tree as a representation of Bast's name, but also as an embodiment of Her power, Her fiery nature, which has always been very solar...associated with Ra the Sun-God. Bast is called the 'Eye of Ra', and in this She takes upon Herself the role of the destructive or defensive power of Ra, which shoots out as fire to incinerate the enemies of the Sun-God. I have been very faithful here in my depiction of the hieroglyph for ointment jar, which is modeled after a specific type of alabaster jar with its tightly sealed lid.
Bastet was originally a lioness goddess, in the pyramid age when She manifested as something quite ferocious and warlike. I wanted to include that defensive, protective character of Hers in this icon; however, I didn't want that to predominate, because the purpose of this icon is to summon the much more benign aspects of the Goddess, Her qualities as a compassionate source of motherly protection. I wanted to...oh, I guess you could say tone down...those wrathful characteristics She has as a lioness, as the Eye of Ra. I have the smaller scene of the Great Tomcat slaying Apep, which I felt was sufficient to honor the very ancient warlike character of Bast.
Later on, Bast's association with the domestic cat came to dominate Her iconography, and because that's the aspect of Her that contemporary devotees gravitate towards, I felt guided from the beginning to depict Bast in Her cat form. Always pushing this icon in the solar direction, you'll notice that I gave the Goddess orange colored fur, which one sees in traditional Egyptian images of domestic cats. Of course, I used lapis lazuli in the stripes of Her headdress, which are solar, once again, linking Bast to the indestructible celestial qualities of Her father Ra.
This intimate relationship with Ra is really spelled out in the presence of the large Wedjat Eye, its falcon talon reaching out to exchange a blessing of power with the Goddess. The Wedjat Eye is always used as a symbol of solar power, and in this instance it is used to denote the creative power of Ra as the originator of the cosmos.
'Bast the Light-Bringer', I call Her, and we find in this icon two very significant sources of that light. Firstly, the Goddess carries upon Her head the disk or face of the Sun, which the Egyptians used as a determinative for the name of Ra. In fact, the name of Ra can be written with just the solar disk, having a dot in the center. Can one even miss the sumptuous Indian star ruby I've placed in the center?!
|Detail of "Bast the Light-Bringer"/ An original Kemetic icon by master iconographer Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa/ Extra fine watercolor, 22 karat gold, Indian star ruby, lapis-lazuli, fire opal, Austrian crystal|
Surrounding the star ruby, and very nearly filling up the inside space of this sun disk, is a sixteen-petaled rosette representing the corolla of the sacred lotus flower, a symbol of the solar creation and of the rebirth of the Sun-God at dawn. We find this design usually associated with statues of the lioness goddess Sekhmet, where it covers the nipples of Her breasts. But it is the opinion of some scholars that this floral design is solar in nature, which means that it's association is with Ra and the reborn sun, so that is how I've used it in this icon. That meaning is further emphasized by the two rearing cobras that flank the sun disk, these, of course, being badges of the Sun-God's power to preserve the cosmic order and destroy His enemies. Their eyes are ruby-colored Austrian crystals.
Foremost of Bast's symbols...really, the primary symbol used in all ancient images of the Goddess...is the Sistrum, which the Egyptians called sesheshet, a ceremonial rattle beloved of the Gods. This is a highly charged ritual object used first and foremost by chantresses or priestess singers in the temples. Bast seems to have been associated with music and the joy it brings from almost the beginning of Her iconography, and for me She is inseparable from it; so, in my icon of Her I've used the Sistrum as an embodiment of Her power and the light She brings. Notice how the multicolored flames shoot out from the base of the rattle and writhe upward. You can think of these also as music, as the sacred power being produced as the Goddess flicks Her wrist back and forth to create the rattling sound. This rush of energy and movement is indicated by the forward tilt of the Sistrum in Bast's hand, instead of standing upright. To emphasize this feeling of energetic movement, the flames jumping up from the Sistrum handle are shown dancing this way and that, curling up and twisting around in the sky.
I have not forgotten two of the other important symbols of Bast, which are the menat necklace and the aegis or sacred shield. The menat is a heavily beaded ritual object closely associated with the adoration of goddesses such as Hathor and Bast, and was used as a form of rattle, having a counterweight at one end that was held by priestesses. Bast holds a menat decorated with golden lotus leaves and a sixteen-petaled rosette, in the center of which I have placed a ruby-colored Austrian crystal. Two strings of beads connect the menat to the aegis-shield, which has at its center a tiny image of Bast as a lioness, paying tribute to Her roots, as it were.
There is a great attention to relief, thus actual three-dimensionality in your icons; does it have a specific meaning / function?
Of course it has meaning...meaning and function! Everything I do in my icons, every single detail has both magical and symbolic meaning, and is intended to be read on multiple levels simultaneously.
Firstly, three-dimensional quality brings the deity image up and out into our space, the viewer's space. Instead of being a flat image that stays down in its own space, my icons have characteristics that stand out, and because these are covered in real gold, they pick up the light and shine. This makes them more visible to the eye, which will then see them as aspects of the composition that ring with more importance. So, in 'Bast the Light-Bringer' one sees how the sun disk, cobras, Sistrum and ornaments of the Goddess stand out as gilded reliefs. The wings enfolding Her dress are also dominated by raised and gilded feather reliefs. These are some of the most significant elements in the composition, also the elements containing the most gold, which from a Kemetic sense, an iconographic sense, makes them the most magically active.
In these regards, my icons are intended to be viewed in the temple setting, as part of an active practice of worship, offering and ritual. This means that 'Bast the Light-Bringer' will be viewed most often by candle light, and through clouds of incense smoke. For that reason, the materials of real gold and iridescent pigments, and raised relief effects, become ways in which to heighten the experience of the deity's presence for the viewer. One sees this in Russian Orthodox and Byzantine icons, for example, where the heavy use of burnished gold and raised reliefs causes the sacred image to glow intensely, and to stand out as the light of candles passes over them.
Detail of "Sekhmet the Eye of Ra" before the application of Austrian crystals and lapis-lazuli. Extra fine watercolor and 22 karat gold by master iconographer Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa
|Detail of "Hwt-Her (Hathor) Mistress of the Sky", an icon in progress, showing the raised relief surfaces|
What would you say about the 'flatness' of Western Visual Arts for almost a millennium, till attention to relief was then re-discovered after the Impressionists?
Well, I think this 'flatness', as you call it, has to do with the values or emphasis being placed on different forms of art by different societies at different times. Social values, in terms of what is artistically viable or in vogue, change from era to era. Just think about what Picasso did to modern art when he created Les Demoiselles d'Avingnon! With this one work Picasso invented Cubism, or gave Cubism its first dramatic face. He was signalling a new system of values for art, making a departure from what he and his contemporaries thought of as outdated values. It was a tremendous shift in paradigms. Art would never be the same again.
In terms of relief...and I'm assuming you mean raised relief, bas-relief...I can only infer that perhaps it fell out of favor or prominence because the technique is so massively time consuming, which means great expense as well. It requires specialized training and intense skill to execute bas-reliefs correctly, effectively, so artists moved away from the sculptural and focused on the two-dimensional. Perhaps there was no longer a need for the monumental, the kind of extravagant display that such reliefs make on public buildings, say.
Concerning my own work, I can say that the creation of the bas-relief components of my icons are the most demanding, time consuming aspect of the work. I use a liquid gesso to build up reliefs in layers, complete with designs or details, and these are then sealed with shellac and gilded. Each of my icons has multiple areas requiring bas-reliefs and gilding, and this is precisely why my icons take so much time to produce. If not for these aspects, my production each year could be doubled. But then again, my aim as an iconographer is not to crank out works of art as quickly as possible...to make quantity my focus. It is quality, not quantity, that governs my work ethic and creative values. Each icon demands a certain amount of hours to craft these jewel-like details, gilded reliefs and iridescent effects with delicate brushwork. I'm after the highest degree of refinement possible. In this way, I really consider myself a craftsman, instead of a painter.
What some people may not know is that in icons and in symbolism, direction is as important as position and the shape and color of what is depicted. Could you explain the importance of space and directions in 'Sekhmet the Eye of Ra'?
"Sekhmet the Eye of Ra"/ An original Kemetic icon by Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa/ Extra fine watercolor, 22 karat gold, lapis-lazuli, Austrian crystal
Both space and direction play significant roles in all my icons. In the Kemetic, ancient Egyptian approach, left corresponds to east while right corresponds to west; so, in 'Sekhmet the Eye of Ra' the Goddess sweeps in from the east as the representative of the Sun-God, and dispatches the serpent-demon Apep to the west. The west, the land where the sun sets and is swallowed up by the Sky Goddess Nuit, is symbolically the land of the dead. This is the direction where the dead are sent in order to undergo the metamorphosis from mortal to immortal. The west is always symbolic of the sacrifice the Sun-God makes each night when He is consumed by darkness, in order to be reborn in the east the following morning.
'Sekhmet the Eye of Ra' presents us with one of the key episodes in the solar mythos. Sekhmet is known from a sacred drama as a enraged, fire breathing and bloodthirsty lioness, whose terror is unleashed on the enemies of the Sun-God. This is the episode being illustrated here; however, we also have a reference being made to the theology of Annu or Heliopolis which states that at dawn, Ra as the Great Tomcat slays the serpent-demon Apep with His knife beneath the sacred persea tree, the Ished. The Ished has not been included in my icon for space considerations, but the Goddess here is certainly the very embodiment of the destructive power of the Sun-God Ra, whose flaming Wedjat Eye She carries in the sun disk upon Her head.
Sekhmet is here an embodiment of the eastern direction by virtue of Her being depicted facing the western or right side of the panel. She also carries the sun on Her head, which insinuates the rising sun. We know it's the rising sun, the eastern sun, because the time of day when Ra slays Apep beneath the Ished Tree is precisely at sunrise. So, here we have Sekhmet, the newly birthed eastern sun, sending Apep into the darkness of the west.
But the entire thrust of this icon is obviously moving towards the right side of the panel, which of course is intentional for the reasons I just described. I've also 'cheated' on the proportions of Sekhmet's anatomy in order to make Her right side appear larger than the left. Her right leg is definitely longer and larger, which makes Her appear to be stepping out of the canvas in order to pin down the coils of the serpent. Her right arm is also grasping the golden lance with the fist pointed downward, which means toward the west...toward the direction of Apep's impending doom. Her downward turned arm directs the eye quite naturally to the direction of the action, which is the lance being thrust by the Goddess into the neck of the serpent-demon. A downward turned fist in this instance is also a magical reinforcement of the action of dispatching Apep and gaining control over his wild power. Sekhmet has him in hand, as it were.
Quite subtly, the lower right wing follows the precise line of the golden lance, and appears to be bursting through the neck of Apep as well. The direction of the wing in this case too is magical. It's part of the anatomy of the Goddess crossing over into the space being held by the serpent-demon. Her power and authority is obviously overtaking his. Her magic is subduing him.
The fire-capped lance of the Goddess is the largest directional line in the composition...it moves the eye very naturally downward, to the bottom right corner of the icon panel. This directional line, the golden lance or spear, embodies the destructive power of the Goddess, which of course is one of the primary magical themes of the icon. The Goddess has the power to control and destroy the ability of chaos as it attempts to undo the work of creation. She is the fire of the Sun-God's Wedjat Eye, His representative, His swift justice.
There are some very subtle directional lines placed in this icon. In the lapis lazuli border at the top of the panel, I have painted a little lightning bolt like squiggle, which comes from the very outer edge of the icon and touches the fire shooting out from the pommel of the lance. This leads the eye, then, down right across the composition and to the bottom right corner of the panel, where the point of the spear juts out from the pierced neck of the serpent-demon Apep. Notice the tiny streams of blood pouring down from the lance tip, which meet one of the seven arrows piercing Apep's neck. This also has a stream of blood dripping down from its tip, which takes the eye down to the bottom of the panel. Both spear tip and arrowhead point at the rearing solar cobra with its angrily extended hood. This is the fire-spitting cobra that sits on the forehead of the Sun-God Ra, and magically, in this context, the presence of the cobra acts as a bookend to the body of the Goddess, closing in the negativity of the serpent Apep from both sides.
Space, both positive and negative, are always important considerations in any icon. Of course, as a general rule of thumb, the deity must always take up the largest amount of space in the icon panel. My icons have two major space components or divisions. The first is what I call the 'outer panel'. This is the border framing in the deity. The two side portions of this outer panel are usually reserved for the hieroglyphs containing the names and epithets of the deity depicted. These are appropriately placed with each of the hieroglyphs facing inward towards the deity, as is natural in the traditional use of Egyptian hieroglyphs. Then we have what I call the 'deity house', that is to say, the inner panel where the deity's image is actually painted. Because each deity is different in terms of their anatomy and the size of their crowns or accoutrements, the amount of positive and negative space in each icon changes. In 'Sekhmet the Eye of Ra' my challenge was to fill the inner panel with as much of the Goddess as possible, to reinforce the sense of Her awesome power pouring out of the icon...shooting out like fire, in an almost uncontrollable manner.
The large X created by the Goddess' wings was of central importance to me in the initial stages of production. It was the guiding factor as I blocked in the other proportions of Sekhmet...how these would consume space to the left and right of the panel. This consumption of space is very much magical; as in the more space taken up by the deity, the greater Her power and magic. The negative space in the top portion of the X created by the wings actually frames in Sekhmet's head, providing a pair of directional lines that move the eye into the body of the Goddess. The fiery energy of the Goddess moves downward with the directional lines provided by Her bottom pair of wings; however, this energy flares upward in the form of dancing and curling, spiralling flames. These flames take up almost all the negative space in the icon, and their direction leads the eye upward into the sky, the dwelling place of the great Eye of Ra.
Everything I do in my icons serves a magical and symbolic purpose. Absolutely nothing in these sacred compositions is purely ornamental or arbitrary.