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Obelisk Odyssey:

Slightly Random Notes on the History and Symbolism of the Obelisk

A library desk with a hand-built obelisk in bright colors.
An obelisk clad in hand-marbled paper by Renato Crepaldi in the study.

Some years ago, I became intrigued with the idea of constructing a model obelisk for the table in our study, one of my favorite spots to sit and read. Like the kitchen table, it's an important gathering place in our home: it's a locus for creativity and curiosity, a place where we spend time surrounded by books, art and other interesting objects. I'm always up for an engineering challenge, so I was especially keen on building my own obelisks from book-binding materials including archival book boards and hand-marbled paper, which would echo the materials that comprise the books populating the room. After spending time at my favorite library researching the history of these captivating pillars and making measured drawings, my obelisk odyssey was officially underway.

Above, a few of my early obelisks under construction... Seems like a long time ago, now!

A bit of background: The obelisk first appeared in ancient Egypt around 2300 BCE. It's defined as a tall, four-sided tapering monument topped with a capstone known as a pyramidion. According to Egyptian mythology, obelisks symbolize Ra, the sun god. The shape of the obelisk is essentially a petrified ray of light from Aten, the sundisk (an aspect of Ra): you can see Aten below, emitting rays down to the earth. Interestingly, it's also thought that the shape of the obelisk derives from natural phenomena associated with the sun, like rays of light during sunrise and sunset, and atmospheric effects called light pillars.

Anatomy of an obelisk chart
Anatomy of an obelisk

Obelisks are among the most popular of the Grand Tour souvenirs, and during the 18th and 19th centuries, countless models were produced in a myriad of materials throughout Europe and Egypt, of course. I can't help thinking of all of the artists and craftspeople who have produced these souvenirs over the centuries, and I feel a strong connection to their craft tradition. I've built hundreds of obelisks myself now, and their history still captures my imagination.

Roman objects featuring obelisk imagery:

Left: Cameo Flask with Egyptianizing Scene, Roman. 25 BC–AD 25, Glass, 3 in. high. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 85.AF.84. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program. Center: Ivory Token, obverse (left) and reverse (right), early 1st century AD, Roman. Ivory, 1 1/8 in. diam. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 79.AI.169, Gift of Marshall and Ruth Goldberg. Right: Lamp, Roman, 2nd half of the 1st century, terracotta, 13.2 cm long and 2.9 cm tall (Antikensammlung der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin),

Egypt was conquered by the Roman Empire in 30 BCE, following Octavian's defeat of Marc Antony and Cleopatra in the battle at Actium. A few years thereafter, obelisks were transported to Rome. According to a fascinating website from an exhibit of Piranesi Drawings at Wellesley:

"In around 13 BCE, emperor Augustus (formerly Octavian), conducted the first “trial run” of obelisk transportation during his reign, ordering that a pair of obelisks erected by Thutmose III at Heliopolis (the former capital of Egypt) be moved to Alexandria. By 10 BCE, he had successfully transported two obelisks (The Flaminian Obelisk and the Obelisk of Montecitorio) from Heliopolis to Rome.

The Flaminio Obelisk in Rome
A photo I took last October of the Flaminio Obelisk in Rome's Piazza del Popolo.

These obelisks served as symbols of Augustus’ conquest in Egypt, emphasizing the power of the Emperor, and therefore echoing the kingly value of the original structures. However, Augustus also maintained the original solar intention of the obelisks, dedicating them to the Roman sun god, Sol. With this move, Augustus incorporated a new Egyptian concept into Roman religion, while maintaining Roman religious practices around the sun."

That last bit is fascinating-- I particularly love the phrase describing the obelisk's 'solar intention,' and this is something I often think about when I'm building obelisks in my studio, especially in the depths of winter.

Parvum Opus hand-built obelisks with striped marbled paper and 22k gold tops
A grouping of striped obelisks I built a few years ago, with marbled paper stripes and 22k gold tops, which I made in homage to some ancient obelisks that featured reflective metallic pyramidia.

Obelisks and books on a home library table, Parvum Opus
More Parvum Opus obelisks on the library table.

With such a long history, there are obviously many interesting books on the subject of Egyptian obelisks. Below are just a sampling, some more amusing than useful.

A few suggestions for the obelisk shelf of your home library. I especially love the title,

"Obelisk: A Novel of Blinding Terror"- surely a literary classic.

Ancient Egyptian obelisks were carved from a single stone, and a great deal has been learned about how they were built through the study of what's known as the Unfinished Obelisk of Aswan. Cracks appeared in the stone during carving, so it was never completed, but in it's unfinished state in the quarry, it has provided greater understanding as to how the Ancient Egyptians constructed and erected their obelisks.

I was surprised to learn that there are only about thirty ancient Egyptian obelisks in existence around the world today. In the mid 19th century, Joseph Bonomi who was an English sculptor, artist, Egyptologist and museum curator, drew the excellent chart shown below. This chart is relatively new to me, but you can be sure that I'll be having a close look at the proportions listed when I develop future P.O. obelisk variations!

Just how was the transport of these stone behemoths managed? The earliest obelisk ships were built in Ancient Egypt to transport obelisks via the Nile from the quarries to their destination.

Years ago I read a book called, 'How Cleopatra's Needle came to New York and what happened when it got here,' by Martina D'Altonabout how one of two obelisks known as Cleopatra's Needles was transported to New York in 1881 (the matching obelisk travelled to London a few years earlier). Apparently the idea of bringing an obelisk to New York came about when the Suez Canal opened, in 1869. The story of the journey is dramatic-- definitely worth a read!

Parvum Opus obelisks on the mantel, dressed in hand-marbled papers by Renato Crepaldi, Jemma Lewis and Emily Romero.
Recently built obelisks on the mantel, clad in hand-marbled papers by Renato Crepaldi, Jemma Lewis and Emily Romero.

Well, after all that, I hope you can see why my obelisk odyssey is ongoing, and why I have such fun building them in my studio. I hope my creations will spark the imaginations of the lovely people who collect them, just like the old souvenirs did for the Grand Tourists centuries ago. I've linked many of the images above to their original sources, so if you'd like to learn more, I think any of those would be a great place to start.

There's a batch of obelisks on my project schedule this week, and I know that as I build, my mind will wander off to ancient Egypt, and to those architects of petrified rays of sunshine, as it always does.

the artist's signature

Souvenir is the blog for Parvum Opus, an artist-run studio specializing in artistic decorative objects and home furnishings. We welcome your thoughts! Comment below to join the conversation, and if you enjoyed this, don't forget to subscribe to receive an email when we publish new posts.


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