Mandaean Symbolic Art

The following was written by Dr Sandra van Rompaey, who is an Honorary Associate of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at La Trobe University. Dr Sandra van Rompaey wrote this in response to the Mandaic Calligraphy and Paintings: Inner Light Through An Ancient Alphabet exhibition by Yuhana Nashmi, which is currently on display at the Liverpool City Library in Australia.

The term ‘Mandaean symbolic art’ refers to the illustrative component of nine of the major Mandaean religious manuscripts. All take the form of a scroll and are considered holy documents, described in some of the accompanying colophons as originating in the ‘World of Light’, the realms of the heavenly regions beyond the corporeal world, or from a specific Lightworld Being such as Šišlam the Great. 

In turn, this knowledge is described in the colophons as being passed on from the ‘heavenly’ scribe to earthly scribes who in most cases are named in the colophons. The documents are for the most part housed at the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, and all are part of the corpus of religious documents kept, in the form of meticulously reproduced copies, by sections of the Mandaean priestly community in their personal collections for private reading and instructional purposes. 

Each manuscript deals with a separate feature of the religion and each exhibits a different illustrative schema while at the same time maintaining the overall geometric principles common to all Mandaean art. They are all written in the Mandaic script, a Semetic language that is closely related to the Jewish Babylonian Aramaic. 

The illustrations are predominantly reflective of Mandaean ritual practice. Primarily they contain a large variety of figurative elements from the world of Light, including both male and female beings. One scroll also contains a wide variety of figures from the world of Darkness. The second most prevalent motif in the scrolls is that of plant matter which includes the sacred date palm and myrtle plant. 

The third important motif is the iconic drabša (ritual banner) which is the prime symbol of the religion being a representation of radiant light. Each figure, plant and drabša is rendered differently, and once studied in detail these slight variations stand outand give each illustration its own individual character. For instance, each palm tree represented in the scrolls has its own unique characteristics and special meaning. 

In addition, other items are added to the geometric illustrations such as the priestly staff, the myrtle wreath, incense burners, ritual tables and accompanying food. One scroll is devoted to the sacred rivers and wellsprings that are central to the Mandaean creation story as used in baptism. The illustrations are not mimetic of any actual appearance of things; when a scroll is viewed in its entirety, it is immediately evident that the artwork serves an altogether different function. 

It is quite deliberate in its manner of execution: the original design concept is the work of skilled artists, and it clearly exists for carefully considered purposes. The motifs used and their associated symbolism are specific to the Mandaean religion for the maintaining of religious knowledge and its transference between priests. 

These largely geometrically conceived illustrations, carefully executed on lengthy pieces of parchment with reed pens and black ink that has been prepared by the priests to specific formulae, have great power. This is due in part to their mysterious appearance, their heavily stylized execution and in some scrolls the illuminated appearance of the ink.

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