The world only exists in your eyes.

(F. Scott Fitzgerald)

From the eye of Horus to the Eye of Providence - the eye is one of the most powerful and multidimensional symbols in Western culture. It has been linked to myths, legends and beliefs, playing a significant role – sometimes positive, sometimes negative, but always powerful – in the life of humans. The eyes are an essential organ of communication, as important as speech in face to face exchanges – in several languages “to see” means to understand. The eye is the mirror of the soul and the artist’s most valued tool.

In Egyptian mythology the eye was not the passive organ of sight but more an agent of action, protection or wrath. Horus was god in the form of a falcon (not unusual for an ancient Egyptian god); his right eye was the sun, symbol of power and quintessence, and his left eye was the moon, representing healing. In one myth, his brother Set, the god of the desert, gouged out Horus’ left eye. The eye was later restored through magic and Horus offered it to his father Osiris, designating the eye as a symbol of sacrifice and healing. The eye of Horus, or the Wadjet, remains one of the best-known symbols of protection.

Good Eye, Evil Eye

A stranger looking enviously at one of your precious possessions, or praising the beauty of your child, could bring bad luck – it’s the evil eye. The belief in the power of the malevolent glare to bring misfortune was present in antiquity and it survived as a superstition to this day, especially throughout the Mediterranean region and the Balkans, West Asia and Latin America. To protect themselves from this negative force a number of objects were designed to be carried as amulets or jewelry. One of the earliest examples of such apotropaic objects is the fascinum, a phallic charm, often winged, worn as a pendant.

The fascinum went out of fashion, but the nazar is still to be found in souks and bazaars around Asia; it is a handmade glass orb amulet, similar to an eyeball, featuring concentric dark and light blue, black and white circles. (In the Mediterranean and West Asia region, where the concept of evil eye is more prevalent, people with green or blue eyes were usually foreigners – not to be trusted and more likely to cast the curse of the evil eye on unsuspecting locals).

Another effective way of protection from the evil eye is to wear a Hamsa – a palm-shaped talisman featuring a green or blue eye called the Hand of Miriam (Judaism) or the Hand of Fatima (Islam). As well as warding off the evil forces, like any fashion accessory, it provided an opportunity for craftsmen to create beautifully ornate amulets and wall hangings.

The idea that the energy-producing ability of the eye had the power to cast evil spells created the counteracting myth of the “good eye”. Like the nazar, the hamsa features a good, benevolent eye on its palm.

In Christian iconography, the Eye of Providence is the all Seeing Eye of God, featured on many significant artifacts, from Russian Orthodox icons to the US dollar bill.

Looking at You Looking at Me

Using magic tools such as light, shadow and perspective, portrait painters created characters with eyes that watch the viewers and follow them around the room. The intense gaze of Durer is scrutinising his own face as he painted his famous self-portrait – yet they are looking straight at the viewer. Once painters discovered how to make the portrait gaze back at us, the fashion enabled a closer triangular relationship between the sitter, the painter and the viewer. Since the Mona Lisa, the eyes in portraits have been focused on us, the viewer.

When they are not, like in Roy Lichtenstein’s Crying Girl, is because the artist wants us to wonder who or what else is part of the story – what is the subject looking at.

In portraits eyes appear variously as open, smiling, crying, closed, obscured or distorted, as the emotion to be conveyed demands. The eyes are the “mirror of the soul”, an essential form of communication, connection and expression.

The Eyes of Freedom

But eyes have a life of their own too, featuring as a subject independent of the portrait. We often recognise the eye as a synecdoche for the artist himself.

The eyeball is similar to a balloon, and in Odilon Redon’s 1882 The Eye, Like a Strange Balloon Moves Towards Infinity, it floats above the horizon, carrying a severed head on a plate. The head may be that of St John the Baptist, but Salomè is not in view. Freed of the rest of the body, the eye can go wherever it likes, choose to see beyond the reality visible to us.

Salvador Dali’s Eye, created in 1945 for the Alfred Hitchcock film, Spellbound, is also floating in mid-air over an unhappy sky. It’s a dream image, and the Surrealists were masters of the dream scene. In Buñuel and Dali’s film Le chien andalou, we see a man sharpening his razor, testing it on his thumb; a cigarette is casually hanging from his lip, a jolly tango is playing, a cloud cuts across the moon. And then we see an eye being cut, the viscous body spilling - it may or may not be the eye of the woman from the previous scene. In many of Dali’s, Dorothea Tanning’s and other Surrealists, the eyes are closed, the characters asleep: this is a dream.

Magritte’s eye is a Faux mirroir, framing a dreamy blue sky with white fluffy clouds, like the view through an airplane window. At the centre, the pupil is a perfect circle, perfectly matt black, unreal, unseeing.

The language suggests that sight is our most treasured sense: to “imagine” is to create a pictorial representation in the mind’s eye, a person with “vision” is a valuable asset and a leader. It is the artist that is all seeing, the person with vision and imagination - the leader. What we cannot or will not see is presented to us in the artist’s work – the images and dreams for our consumption.