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Obelisk  

Erik Iversen

[Gr.: ‘little spit’]

Square or rectangular shaft, usually monolithic, with tapering sides and a pyramidal apex, first developed in Egypt in the 3rd millennium bc but also popular in Europe in Roman times, the Renaissance and the 19th century.

The Egyptian name for the obelisk was tekhen, from a verb meaning ‘pierce’, while its apex, clearly considered as a distinct part, was known as ben or benben. The interpretation of this term is controversial: according to one theory, it derived from the verb ben, which originally meant ‘shine’, ‘radiate’ or ‘reflect’. Thus, like the capstone of a pyramid, the function of the apex would have been to reflect or absorb the rays of the sun, charging the obelisk with solar energy and reviving the person whose name was inscribed on its shaft. In the case of the truncated obelisks placed in sun temples, such as that at Abu Ghurab, this pyramidion would guarantee the physical presence of the sun god in his sanctuary; in this context, it is significant that, in ancient representations of obelisks, the sun disc is often seen resting on or emerging from the apex....