There are many flowers and plants that have influenced art and decoration. A lot of them appear because they are sacred or symbolic. Two that are both are the lotus and the papyrus.
There are several species of lotus, often confusingly referred to by the name of a different plant, the water-lily, and they feature significantly with the papyrus in the art of Egypt and Asia. The white and blue lotus have particular significance in ancient Egypt.
It is believed that the Egyptians were the first to turn floristry into a profession. They made garlands and arrangements for banquets and rituals, processions and burials. The lotus and papyrus figured prominently, thought the lotus was the most sacred flower in their religion.
The lotus features in the creation myths. A giant lotus was said to emerge from the muddy waters of the Nile before time began. From it rose the sun, Ra, creating the first day. The association with the Nile, where it grew in abundance, gave rise to the flower’s representation as a symbol of life, regeneration and fertility. If it wasn’t for the Nile ancient Egypt would not have existed. More specifically, it was the annual Nile floods that washed over the surrounding lands.
The ancient Egyptians created an annual festival to celebrate these floods. It is still a holiday today called Wafaa El-Nil. I wrote about this festival in August 2018 and explained how the floods were given their own god, Hapi.
Because ancient Egypt and the Nile were divided into Upper Egypt/Nile and Lower Egypt/Nile Hapi became a dual deity, both aspects represented as both male and female. His Upper Egypt/Nile name was Hapi-Meht and his Lower Egypt/Nile name was Hapi-Reset. In my 2018 article I also mentioned that each Hapi had a headdress made of his sacred plants. Hapi-Meht wore a headdress of lotus flowers and Hapi-Reset had a headdress of papyrus fronds. Sometimes both Hapis are depicted together, as in the picture below which I used in my article on the Nile floods. Hapi-Meht is on the right and Hapi-Reset is on the left. They are tying their symbolic plants to the Nile represented by the upright bar.
The lotus and papyrus both became major elements in Egyptian architecture. Most of the huge columns you can still see at sites like Luxor are stylised bundles of lotus and papyrus stalks. At the top of the columns are stylised lotus flowers and papyrus fronds. These types of column have their own architectural names – lotiform and papyriform. Hapi’s lotus was used more often than papyrus in wall decoration and furniture. They became the archetypal Egyptian design element.
In the late 18th century ancient Egypt became popular among the nations of Western Europe. The Napoleonic Wars had spread to Egypt and the famous Battle of the Nile in 1798 made people like Horatio Nelson national heroes. Napoleon in particular is responsible for the first Egyptian Revival in art by instructing a scientific expedition to draw and paint everything they saw, including wall painting and hieroglyphics. When the drawings arrived back in France and were published they cause a sensation. It was just the sort of decoration people were wanting to replace the tired old neo-classicism that had dominated the century.
This Egyptian Revival outlived the short Empire Style, the mixture of neo-classicism and Egyptian design created by (the probably gay couple) Charles Perrier and Pierre Fontaine. The lotus and papyrus were used in both styles. The Egyptian Revival spread across Europe and the Atlantic to America and for several decades Egyptian architecture was more popular than classical Greek and Roman.
Gradually tastes began to change again and Egpyt lost its appeal. But it re-emerged in spectacular style with the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 sparking off the Second Egyptian Revival, again in France. This time another art style was becoming popular and the revival merged seamlessly into it. That style was later called Art Deco.
The simple shapes and outlines of Art Deco seemed to be perfect for the stylised lotus and papyrus designs from ancient Egyptian. The result was some of the most iconic buildings, decorations, furniture and jewellery produced during the 1920 and 30s. It even influence film and theatre. Hapi’s sacred plants became a common source for Art Deco design. The whole Art Deco-Second Egyptian Revival can be represented perfectly in the image below of the papyrus-inspired elevator doors in the Chrysler Building in New York.
Hapi and the other Egyptian gods and deities have rarely been used as design elements but Hapi’s sacred plants, the lotus and papyrus, have become familiar to the modern world through Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt and Tutankhamun’s tomb.