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Objective Art

 

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Of the representations which Egyptian Antiquity presents us with, one figure must be especially noticed, viz., the Sphinx -- in itself a riddle -- an ambiguous form, half brute, half human. The Sphinx may be regarded as a symbol of the Egyptian Spirit. The human head looking out from the brute body, exhibits Spirit as it begins to emerge from the merely Natural -- to tear itself loose there from and already to look more freely around; without, however, entirely freeing itself from the fetters Nature had imposed. The innumerable edifices of the Egyptians are half below the ground, and half rise above it into the air. The whole land is divided into a kingdom of life and a kingdom of death.

G. W. F.  Hegel - The Philosophy of History, page 218 (first published in 1837)

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The Great Sphinx of Giza (Construction Date Unknown)

Satellite photo, taken in 2006, of the Pyramid Complex at Giza; the Sphinx Supposedly Guards the Entrance to the Pyramid of Pharaoh Khephren (Middle Pyramid).

Satellite photo, taken in 2006, of the Great Sphinx of Giza.

 

A Sphinx was a symbolic (symbolique?) creature that played an important role in both Ancient Egypt and Greece.

In Egyptian Art:

The Sphinx seems to have originated in Egypt, no later that the beginning of the Old Kingdom (circa 2700 B.C.). In Egyptian art it was usually portrayed as a recumbent male lion with the head of a ram, bird, or human. The largest and most famous Egyptian sphinx is the Great Sphinx of Giza, situated on the west bank of the Nile, facing due east, with a small temple between its paws.  Other famous Egyptian sphinxes include the Alabaster Sphinx of Memphis, the Avenue of the Ram-Headed Sphinxes and the Avenue of the Human-Headed Sphinxes that line the roadway linking the huge New Kingdom Temples of Karnak and Luxor (ancient Egyptian Thebes) respectively.

The name "Sphinx" is the term used by the ancient Greeks for these creatures. The ancient Egyptian word for Sphinx is unknown. The Arabic name for the Great Sphinx is Abu al-Hôl, which translates as "Father of Terror."

In Greek Art:

The symbol was exported  to Mycenaean Greece during the Late Bronze Age; however, in Greece, the gender of the Sphinx was always female. In fact, the name "Sphinx" is derived from the Greek and means "to strangle" (Σφιγξ).

The most famous Sphinx in Greek mythology appears in the story of Oedipus, the legendary King of the Bronze Age Greek City of Thebes.  In this story, the Sphinx was a demon of destruction and bad luck.  She was usually represented in Greek vase-painting and bas-reliefs seated in an upright rather than a recumbent position, and was frequently depicted as a winged lion with a woman's head and breasts. In the myth, the Goddess Hera, to punish the Thebans, had sent the Sphinx from her Ethiopian homeland to sit on a high rock along the main road leading to Thebes and ask all passersby a most famous riddle:

Which creature in the morning goes on four feet, at noon on two, and in the evening upon three?

She strangled anyone unable to answer. Oedipus was the first person to solve the riddle.  His correct answer was "a man"  -- a man crawls on all fours as a baby, walks on two feet as an adult, and then walks with a cane in old age. Defeated at last, the Sphinx, in a fury, threw herself from her high rock and died.

The subject of Oedipus and the Sphinx has been a popular one for artists to portray over the centuries.  For example: in European art, two famous paintings with this title were created by the 19th century French painters Ingres (in 1808) and Moreau (in 1864).  See the following:

Great Sphinx of Giza, Egypt (Construction Date Unknown) Oedipus and the Sphinx (1864) by Gustav Moreau

Oedipus and the Sphinx (1808) by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres

The Great Sphinx:

The Great Sphinx is a mixture of both sculpture and architecture which guards the Giza Plateau in Egypt; it probably is the most famous and mysterious object of art on the planet Earth.  Since time immemorial it has been regarded in awe by numerous philosophers, mystics, military conquerors and archaeologists. The Sphinx is located within the pyramid complex of Pharaoh Khafre (in Greek = Khephren) of the Fourth Dynasty.   Khafre ruled from about 2558 - 2532 B.C. and his pyramid is second only to the Great Pyramid in size.  The Sphinx is also huge, being 240 feet long and 66 feet high; its paws are 50 feet long and its head is 30 feet long and 14 feet wide.

The Sphinx at Giza is one of the few works of art that was specifically mentioned by Gurdjieff as being an example of Objective Art.  In P. D. Ouspensky's In Search of the Miraculous (at page 27), Gurdjieff is recorded as making the following remarks:

 ... "At the same time the same work of art will produce different impressions on people of different levels. And people of lower levels will never receive from it what people of higher levels receive. This is real, objective art.  Imagine some scientific work -- a book on astronomy or chemistry. It is impossible that one person should understand it in one way and another in another way. Everyone who is sufficiently prepared and who is able to read this book will understand what the author means, and precisely as the author means it. An objective work of art is just such a book, except that it affects the emotional and not only the intellectual side of man.”

“Do such works of objective art exist at the present day?” I [Ouspensky] asked.

“Of course they exist,” answered Gurdjieff]. “The great Sphinx in Egypt is such a work of art, as well as some historically known works of architecture, certain statues of gods, and many other things. ...

 

Cyril Aldred's Description of the Great Sphinx

Most Egyptologists believe that the Sphinx was constructed by Pharaoh Khephren and originally represented a composite of the god-king Khephren, the sun god Re-Atum and the ferocious powers of a lion; its initial purpose was to protect the Khephren pyramid-tomb. The following is a description of the sculpture by the noted museum curator and Egyptologist, Cyril Aldred (1914-1991), from his book entitled The Egyptians (Third Edition - 1998), page 106:

The immense necropolis of the Giza plateau, a veritable city of the dead elite of their time, was protected by a guardian colossus, the Great Sphinx. This huge statue of a recumbent lion with the head of a king, in this example, Khephren, is hewn out of a knoll of rock left after the extraction of stone from a local quarry. It is the first known version, and the largest, of a type of representation that haunted the imagination of the ancients, and attracted legends around it in Egypt, before the days of Oedipus. According to Egyptian belief, the lion and its derivative, the sphinx, were the protectors of thresholds and would seize any intruder who violated sacred precincts. By the New Kingdom at the latest, however, the Great Sphinx was regarded as a manifestation of Re-Herakhty, the sponsor of the ruling king, and its connection with Khephren had been almost entirely lost.

 

Comments of René Adolphe Schwaller de Lubicz

R. A. Schwaller de Lubicz

Schwaller de Lubicz in 1960

 

Since he spent more than fifteen years studying the monuments of ancient  Egypt, the comments of Schwaller de Lubicz concerning the Great Sphinx should be of particular importance.  Unfortunately, his published works provide few comments concerning the aesthetic meaning of the Sphinx; however, he does venture some observations concerning its great antiquity.  In his book entitled Sacred Science (pages 96-97) he tells us the following:

In any case, there was an unbroken tradition concerning an alluvial origin for the Delta and the existence of a maritime gulf before this ushering in of earth by the Nile. A great civilization must have preceded the vast movements of water that passed over Egypt, which leads us to assume that the Sphinx already existed, sculptured in the rock of the west cliff at Giza, that Sphinx whose leonine body, except for the head, shows indisputable signs of aquatic erosion.

We have no idea when and how the submersion of the Sphinx took place. Both ancient and modern texts concerning this monument are rare and remain evasive. No Greek traveler makes mention of it and Pliny devotes only a few lines to it after having described the Pyramids:

In front of them is the Sphinx, which deserves to be described even more, and yet the Egyptians have passed it over in silence. The inhabitants of the region regard it as a deity.

It is known that the great hollow carved into the rock around the Sphinx was filled up several times during the course of history by sand dunes which submerged all but the head. A commemorative stela erected between the paws of the Sphinx recounts how Thothmes IV (1425 B.C.) had the sand cleared away from it during the first year of his reign. Wishing to perform an act of worship to Harmachis once while he was out hunting, the king stopped and drew near to the Sphinx:

Now, a great magical power had existed in this place from the beginning of all time and it extended over all the region.. . . And at this time, the Sphinx-form of the most mighty god Khepera came to this place and the greatest of Souls, the holiest of the holy ones, rested therein.

The sun being at its zenith, Thothmes IV became drowsy, and the Sphinx spoke to him, saying:

Behold me, 0 my son Thothmes. . . the sand whereon I have my being hath enveloped me in on all sides; say unto me that thou wilt do for me all that I desire.

It is thus that the Sphinx was liberated from the sands, but according to Maspero, it seems that this was not the first time:

The stela of the Sphinx bears, on line 13, the cartouche of Khephren in the middle of a gap. . . . There, I believe, is the indication of an excavation of the Sphinx carried out under this prince, and consequently the more or less certain proof that the Sphinx was already covered with sand during the time of Cheops and his predecessors.

A legend affirms that even in Cheops’ day, the age of the Sphinx was already so remote that it was impossible to situate it in time. This Sphinx is a human and colossal work. There is an enigma about it that is linked with the very enigma posed by the Sphinx itself. The account of Diodoros is the only document that sheds any light on the Nile’s flooding of the valley during a remote epoch when the land was already inhabited by a great people. This took place during the reign of Osiris, after this Neter had founded several famous cities:

Then it happened that the Nile, at the time of the rising of Sirius which is the season when the river is usually at flood, breaking out of its banks inundated a large section of Egypt, particularly that part where Prometheus was governor.  Few inhabitants escaped from this deluge.

Observe that in the myth, Osiris represents the waters of the West and of renewal. Rather than seeing a simple symbolization of the territory in the mythical legends of Osiris and Horus, as Plutarch does, would it not be wiser to see them as the traditional description of the great events which formed the land of Egypt? Then the reign of Osiris would evoke the flowering of a great civilization become legendary, which preceded the destruction by the waters of the river. The myth’s death and resurrection of Osiris would admirably motivate the fact we have just described. Following this destruction by the flooding came the reign of Horus.

The Osirian principle is that of karmic religion—whose profound significance we will later examine—while the revelation of Horus is reserved for the intimate teaching of the temple, for those who have renounced the illusions of this earth.

The above ideas of Schwaller de Lubicz have been seriously analyzed by a Gurdjieff student, John Anthony West, and a professional geologist, Robert Schoch.  Their findings are summarized in the book by West entitled Serpent in the Sky.

 

P. D. Ouspensky's Assessment

P. D. Ouspensky in about 1935

 

A few years before he met Gurdjieff, P. D. Ouspensky visited Egypt and spent some time viewing its ancient monuments, including the Great Sphinx of Giza.  The following is his assessment of the Sphinx, written in about 1914, as published in his book entitled A New Model of the Universe (pages 362-365):

Yellowish-grey sand. Deep blue sky. In the distance the triangle of the Pyramid of Khephren, and just before me this strange, great face with its gaze directed into the distance.

I used often to go to Giza from Cairo, sit down on the sand before the Sphinx, look at it and try to understand it, understand the idea of the artists who created it. And on each and every occasion I experienced the same fear and terror of annihilation. I was swallowed up in its glance, a glance that spoke of mysteries beyond our power of comprehension.

The Sphinx lies on the Giza plateau, where the great pyramids stand, and where there are many other monuments, already discovered and still to be discovered, and a number of tombs of different epochs. The Sphinx lies in a hollow, above the level of which only its head, neck and part of its back project.

By whom, when and why the sphinx was erected--of this nothing is known. Present-day archaeology takes the Sphinx to be prehistoric.

This means that even for the most ancient of the ancient Egyptians, those of the first dynasties six to seven thousand years before the birth of Christ, the Sphinx was the same riddle as it is for us today.

From the stone tablet, inscribed with drawings and hieroglyphs, found between the paws of the Sphinx, it was once surmised that the figure represented the image of the Egyptian god Herakhty, "The Sun on the Horizon." But is has long been agreed that this is an altogether unsatisfactory interpretation and that the inscription probably refers to the occasion of some partial restoration made comparatively recently.

As a matter of fact, the Sphinx. is older than historical Egypt, older than her gods, older than the pyramids, which, in their turn, are much older than is thought.

The Sphinx is indisputably one of the most remarkable, if not the most remarkable, of the world's works of art. I know nothing that it would be possible to put side by side with it. It belongs indeed to quite another art than the art we know. Beings such as ourselves could not create a Sphinx. Nor can our culture create anything like it. The Sphinx appears unmistakably to be a relic of knowledge far greater than ours.

There is a tradition or theory that the Sphinx is a great, complex hieroglyph, or a book in stone, which contains the whole totality of ancient knowledge, and reveals itself to the man who can read this strange cipher which is embodied in the forms, correlations and measurements of the different parts of the Sphinx. This is the famous riddle of the Sphinx, which from the most ancient times so many wise men have attempted to solve.

Previously, when reading about the Sphinx, it had seemed to me that it would be necessary to approach it with the full equipment of acknowledge different from ours, with some new form of perception some special kind of mathematics and that without these aids it would be impossible to discover anything in it.

But when I saw the Sphinx for myself, I felt something in it that I had never read an never head or, something that at once placed it for me among the most enigmatic and at the same time fundamental problems of life and the world.

The face of the Sphinx strikes one with wonder at the first glance. To begin with, it is quite a modern face. With the exception of the head ornament there is nothing of "ancient history" about it. For some reason I had feared that there would be. I had thought that the Sphinx would have a very "alien" face. But this is not the case. Its face is simple and understandable. It is only the way that it looks that is strange. The face is a good deal disfigured. But if you move away a little and look for a long time at the Sphinx, it is as if a kind of veil falls from its face, the triangles of the head ornament behind the ears become invisible, and before you there emerges clearly a complete undamaged face with eyes which look over and beyond you into the unknown distance.

I remember sitting on the sand in front of the Sphinx--on the spot from which the second pyramid in the distance makes an exact triangle behind the sphinx--and trying to understand, to read its glance. At first I saw only that the Sphinx looked beyond me into the distance. But soon I began to have a kind of vague, then a growing, uneasiness. Another moment, and I felt that the Sphinx was not seeing me, and not only was it not seeing, it could not see me, and not because I was too small in comparison with it or too insignificant in comparison with the profundity of wisdom it contained and guarded. Not at all. That would have been natural and comprehensible. The sense of annihilation and the terror of vanishing came from feeling myself in some way too transient for the Sphinx to be able to notice me. I felt that not only did these fleeting moments or hours which I could pass before it not exit for it, but that if I could stay under its gaze from birth to death, the whole of my life would flash by so swiftly for it that it could not notice me. Its glance was fixed on something else. It was the glance of a being who thinks in centuries and millenniums. I did not exist and could not exist for it. And I could not answer my own question--do I exist for myself? Do I, indeed, exist in any sort of sense, in any sort of relation? And in this thought, in this feeling, under this strange glance, there was an icy coldness. We are so accustomed to feel that we are, that we exist. Yet all at once, here, I felt that I did not exist, that there was no I, that I could not be so as perceived.

And the Sphinx before me looked into the distance, beyond me, and its face seemed to reflect something that it saw, something which I could neither see nor understand.

Eternity! This word flashed into my consciousness and went through me with a sort of cold shudder. All ideas about time, about things, about life were becoming confused. I felt that in these moments, in which I stood before the Sphinx, it lived through all the events and happenings of thousands of years--and that on the other hand centuries passed for it like moments. How this could be I did not understand. But I felt that my consciousness grasped the shadow of the exalted fantasy or clairvoyance of the artists who had crated the Sphinx. I touched the mystery but could neither define nor formulate it.

And only later, when All these impressions began to unite with those which I had formerly known and felt, the fringe of the curtain seemed to move, and I felt that I was beginning slowly, to understand.

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