On Our Mind: Thoughts from Mark & Michelle Dean

From the Amulet to the Monument: A Shared Material Spirit

by Michelle Dean 07-04-2015 | 11:37PDT | Comments (3)

Merit, wife of Egyptian official Maya, wearing ceremonial attire of temple singer and an amulet.

Merit, wife of Egyptian official Maya, wearing the ceremonial attire of temple singer and an amulet.

Three-dimensional artwork spans from amulet to monument and despite its scale, it has a similar essence, qualities of architecture and sculpture that share a material spirit. The amulet is a small portable charm worn as protection against evil or insurance of fertility and the monument, a structure permeated with spirit. It is believed that some of the earliest monuments were phallic shaped, columns, pillars, or obelisks, jutting toward the sky, linking heaven and earth. Originally the towers were intended as sculpture only but over time it became customary to make openings and hollow chambers within and deposit images of the divine, like a shell enclosing a seed (Read, 1977), a container for those things precious. Aspects of the monument are like the sarcophagus, “a flesh-consuming” stone deriving its name from arx meaning “flesh”, and phagein meaning “to eat”. Tombs, natural caves, grave mounds, stupas, hemispherical structures containing Buddhist relics, and pyramids often recorded the events of the deceased through murals or relief carvings on their interiors. Doorways into such structures serve as passageways, a transition into the interior while pediments, supported by pillars, turn our gaze upward toward the sky upon entering inside for contemplation. “As the art develops, in history or in sensuous experience of the individual, we may begin to associate with each shape an idea; we inhabit the shape with our spirit; and finally, if we are artists, we try to realize ideas as specific shapes, to create symbols for our indeterminate feelings-to become conscious, in the forms of art, of the dimensions of reality” (Read, 1977, p. 4 – 5). Through time, the temple and the tomb were merged and the spatial relationships transformed  – enlarging spaces to enter into like cathedrals, or scaling the divine into carried devotionals or transportable sacred spaces like alters and devotionals.

As Read points out in The Art of Sculpture (1977) more than nine-tenth of the sculpture found in museums is devoted to the human form. There is a convention between the human form and sculpture, unlike landscape or still life, which are typical subjects of painting. To sculpt a form a three-dimensional memory is necessary, one which visual perception alone does not provide. To clearly see a form in its entirety, memory coupled with sensation and imagination are required. These abilities, gradually acquired through a phylogenetic history, are laden with psychological and cultural attributes. The image we possess of ourselves is not one that is inherent at birth but instead constructed through growing awareness of our external and internal worlds. Immediate sensations both seen and felt, contribute to this image as well as the observation of others, cultural ideals, and external feedback. By conceiving an image of our body, can we place an idea of ourselves in the external world. This image is considered our body image. But our “vision is colored, as we say. It is distorted by memories, associations, and above all desires, and to a considerable extent we see what we want to see” (Read, 1977, p. 31). We look at others and see ourselves, a projection of our desires.

Narcissus by Hiolle

Ernest Eugene Hiolle (1834-1886) Narcissus. 1868. Marble

Like the Greek myth of Echo, a verbose nymph who has been cursed by Hera to repeat only the last words of others, and Narcissus, a handsome youth for whom Echo has fallen in love with while he was ensnaring a deer in the forest, the two, manifest aspects of a colored reality in which desire has grave effects. Narcissus calls out to inquire who is in the woods with him and is met by Echo’s mimicking response. Narcissus cruelly rejects her for she lacks the ability to express the substance of her true herself. Thus she retreats to a cave where she pines and withers away, leaving only her echoing voice for others to hear. Counterpoint justice is served by Nemesis who upon witnessing Narcissus’ cruelty curses him to fall in love with his reflection. While attempting to embrace the noncorporeality of his reflection he succumbs to the spring waters and dies, leaving in its place his namesake, the pale flower, narcissus. Both are lost as Echo, lacking a voice, is hindered; her inability to speak about who she is results in a lack of embodied as self, while Narcissus is unable to be desirous of anything other than himself. Echo and Narcissus carry the potentiality that we all possess to destroy ourselves when unable to speak or see the reflected gaze of another while compulsively pursuing desire.

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 11.58.31 AMThe flipside of a negative outcome to desire is the creation story of the artist Pygmalion who falls in love with one of his sculptures. He asked the Goddess Aphrodite to give her life. His wish was granted and upon marrying her named her Galatea. In some legends, Galatea was Aphrodite, goddess of love and procreation. Pygmalion is an excellent example how artwork, like the amulet and monument, become imbued with the love, or spirit, of the artist. These stories have captured the imagination for centuries and as can be seen in more modern adaptions such as in My Fair Lady and Pinocchio giving physical form to a mental projection of one’s desire and self. Utilizing three-dimensional work in therapy possesses the same enlivening processes, which are discussed further in my forthcoming text and future blog posts. Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.


Read, H. (1977). The Art of Sculpture. Bollingen Series XXXV. 3: Princeton University Press.

© 2015; All rights reserved, The Center for Psyche & the Arts, LLC; written by Michelle L. Dean, MA, ATR-BC, LPC, CGP, DVATA HLM

Using Art Media in PsychotherapyFor more information, see Using Art Media in Psychotherapy, Bringing Creativity to Practice.

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3 Responses to From the Amulet to the Monument: A Shared Material Spirit

Amy Maricle says: April 17, 2015 at 9:19 am

HI Michelle!

I loved your reminders about the traditional vessel forms and the sacred things contained within. I love helping art therapy clients play with these archetypal images.

Thanks for an inspiring read!

Loren Hession-Rubino says: September 13, 2017 at 4:20 pm

I am looking for research on amulets used in art therapy for a Techniques in Art Therapy class that I am taking. Do you know of any such research?
Thank you,
Loren Rubino

Michelle Dean says: September 14, 2017 at 7:28 pm

Hi Loren, Thank you so much for taking the time to read our blog. Other than the chapter in my book, Using Art Media in Psychotherapy, from which this blog post originates, I am not aware of much research about amulets in art therapy. Much of my research has come from the literature on sculpture and other historic uses.


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