Monday, April 13, 2020

The Search for Sphinxes...

My last trip to Paris turned out to be a half-hearted attempt at hunting down the enigmatic sphinx in its varying forms. This was the beginning of March and meetings and meet-ups had been cancelled, and whilst the city appeared to be functionning as usual, everything seemed to be under a spell - a strange mood and sense of foreboding reigned. Enjoyable as it was, to be strolling around the beautiful historical places and spaces, I knew then I shouldn’t be there and would not be returning for some time.

Château de Maisons-Laffitte in the Yvelines department offers a number of regal sphinxes dating back to the 17th century, in the late Renaissance – early Classicist style. These I had seen in February during a magical visit of a temporary exhibition and their proud sculpted forms made me realise how amazing these figures are and set me on my search for the ellusive sphinx a few weeks later. 
Fontaine du Châtelet - 1808
By then, of course, the Louvre was closed and the 'City of Light' was already under the shadow of something quite dark. Even the Seine seemed menacing, with its abnormally high waters flooding the quais and giving an even more knowing quality to the gaze of the sphinxes that watch over the streets and bridges in the heart of Paris. 

The sphinx looks ahead in an unfocused manner at some invisible force, creating a mysterious, sometimes haughty impression. It is a ‘therianthropic’ creature from Egyptian and Greek mythology - combining human and animal characteristics and physical attributes, in varying proportions. 
Fontaine du Châtelet - 1808 (from photo in 2010!)
United in the whole are four symbols and qualities – the head and bust of a woman (knowledge and insight) the body of a bull (might and willpower), the paws and claws of a lion (daring) and the wings of an eagle (ability to be silent). Like the regal lion figure in mythology, the role of the sphinx is centred on the protection and guarding of the sacred, and it watches over gateways and thresholds to other worlds as a fearsome obstacle to be tackled by the fool-hardy alone.
La Sphinge de Sébastopol - Quai des Tuileries
The first and most famous sphinx is, of course, that of the Valley of the Kings. He sits on his haunches, in front the vast pyramids dating back to Ancient Egypt, situated just outside the sprawling streets of Greater Cairo. Oblivious to the noise and commotion of modern life, the Great Sphinx looks on towards the necropolis as he always has over the millenia. Unlike many of his classical counterparts, he does not have wings and manifestly has no intention of going anywhere, regardless of what civilisation, choking pollution or climate change may surround or submerge him in. He just stares ahead, knowlingly. As the largest monolithic monument in the world, the creature’s massive form was sculpted directly into the bedrock of the Giza plateau, which also served as a quarry for the pyramids. The work required to realise these monuments leaves you in awe…
Château de Maisons-Laffitte
The Great Sphinx incarnates and protects the souvereign power of the pharaon, hence one interpretation of the word as meaning ‘living image of the king’. He is therefore taken to symbolize the close relationship with the sun god Ra - through the attributes of a lion's body - and with pharaon through the human (male) head and pharaonic headdress. Sadly, these human attributes have suffered the ravages of time and human intervention – notably the sphinx’s missing nose !
Château de Maisons-Laffitte
The sphinx took on a rather more participative role in the worlds of Greek mythology. Summoned away from Africa by the Greek gods, the winged sphinx held a reign of terror over the city of Thebes, guarding its entrance and preventing any traveller from passing as an act of revenge for some past injustice. 
Château de Maisons-Laffitte
Thus the sphinx dropped the enigmatic, contemplative aspect for which it was known in Egypt, watching over the gates to afterlife. In Greece, he had taken on the female gender and there was certainly no mystery as to her intentions ; they were clearly murderous!
Château de Maisons-Laffitte
The female sphinx was far more concerned with cleansing the realm of the living with blood than protecting the entrails of the underworld. The word sphinx was thought to be derived from the verb ‘to squeeze’, as in ‘throttle’ and the Greek sphinx duly put this into practice as she pinned down and strangled her prey in the manner of hunting lionnesses. Before putting these hapless beings to death, however, this monstrous creature liked to play with her quarry, just as any other cat. Her own particular amusement took the form of setting riddles that were impossible to solve. The stakes were high ; those who lost the game paid with their lives. Predictably, no one had survived prior to the arrival of Oedipus…   
                                              In response to the question :

"Which creature has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?" 

                                              Oedipus gave the correct answer ; Man. 
Château de Maisons Laffitte
Unable to accept defeat, the Sphinx threw herself off a precipice, thus showing that she was indeed a bad loser of epic proportion. There were mitigating circumstances to her criminal nature however, since she had been born of the incestuous relationship between Echidna – a flesh-eating 'she-viper' and the latter’s son ; the two-headed dog Orthros.
Unflatteringly, yet aptly referred to as the ‘mother of monsters’, Echidna had numerous fierce offspring, according to Greek poet Hesiod. All of the Sphinx’s siblings (Cerberus, the Hydra, the Chimera to name but a few…) shared similar blood-thirsty traits and all seemed to be involved in the guarding over some realm or another, leading to the same outcome, should anyone dare to enter uninvited or uninitiated... 
The Late Renaissance beasts of mythology at Château de Maisons-Laffitte are highly refined descendants of the Greek family. The sphinx made its grand entry in French art in the 1520s in the School of Fontainebleau and took up a far more dignified pose than its unruly ancestors. The human head was sometimes replaced by a hawk’s head - Hieracosphinx - or that of a ram – Criosphinx - but still maintained a sense of decorum and order. The sphinx remained a popular figure up until the Late Baroque style of the French Régence at the beginning of the 18th century. It again emerged in its more troubling form in the art of the Symbolists, notably Gustave Moreau (1826 – 1898) and the Polish sculptor Boleslas Biegas (1877–1954). The rather enigmatic, ellusive symbolism of the sphinx has also been employed in the imagery of the Masonic Order.
The Enigma -  Gustave Doré - 1871
And now of course, I will have to wait to go back to Paris and beyond to track down the sphinx in all her various shapes, sizes and forms!
Le Sphinx - Boleslas Biegas - 1902

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please share your ideas...