A Process of Struggle
Opening images for the Gods on earth is dangerous as it is liberating. There are always forces bent on disturbing sacred work, and hindering those who engage in it. Those who create cult images must at one time or another come face to face with these forces and overcome them in order to bring through a true image of the deity. Icons / cult images are not pretty pictures or simply works of art; they are the visible manifestations of a process of struggle between order and chaos, and they are the gateways between worlds, literally.
The cultures of the Ancient Near East understood this only too well, and because of this struggle, those who created and awakened holy images operated within a ritualistic and magical framework that allowed them to safely bring into being an earthly form that was fit for occupation by the goddess or god of a temple. In Egypt, cult images were produced by specialists who were also bestowed with priestly titles or office, who wielded the ritualistic knowledge and purity to awaken living images of the Gods. This included the final ceremony of actually awakening or opening the holy image, which was accomplished via the Opening of the Mouth ceremony- a very involved set of invocations, purifications, offerings and precise ritual actions that made an inanimate man made form a magically suitable residence for a portion of the deity’s living, vital power.
These are all significant aspects of the work I undertake to bring through the images I create, though there are other aspects to my work that I don’t discuss. But it is because of these qualities that I always strongly differentiate between the creation of icons / cult images and what people call art work, art, painting, etc. I do not consider what I do art, art work, or painting in the contemporary understanding of those terms. I belong to a tradition that predates the conception of the visual arts as we know them, and also the term and concept of organized religion.
Contemporary painting involves the application of paint on a two dimensional surface to create an expression of the individual artist’s personality or experiences. The identity of the artist as an individual is often of primary or underlying concern in contemporary art. Art and painting as we know it today is utilized for personal expression and for decoration. Both of these ideas are absent from the creation of cult images in the work of the ancient Egyptians and peoples of the Near East. These are the traditions I am operating in, which define images of deities (either two or three-dimensional) as physical vehicles for harnessing and containing the dynamic power of the goddesses and gods who are worshiped through them. There is no self expression on the part of the craftspeople who undertake such creations, and there is no sense of creation as a work of art to decorate or be admired for aesthetic considerations.
My job as an iconographer manifests tremendous satisfaction when I see the end result, when I have completed the struggle- materially, intellectually, spiritually, and magically- to craft and then to activate an image as the home of a deity. When one of my icons has been installed in a Temple, and is receiving prayer, offerings, and daily cultic service, then and only then have I accomplished my sacred duty, which is, in the end, that of a Hem Netjer (Priest) and worker of Heka (Magic).
Art for its own sake is a noble and fulfilling vocation. Creation as an extension of the work of the Gods is the highest vocation to which an artist may aspire.