Museum Academy Temple von Solms

In these early iconographic substitutions, the Heliconian muses were represented as institutional forms.


Museum (1996), Academy (1996-7), and Temple (1997) were the first sculptures created for the series Hermetic Heresies (1996-1998). While based on the three Heliconian muses Aoedte, Melete, and Mneme, each sculpture also includes references to the nine Olympian muses named in Hesiod’s Theogony. This combination reflects Gregory Nagy’s description of the Hesiodic transformation of the muses from local divinities to Pan-Hellenic ones (see Nagy, Gregory, 1992, Greek Mythology and Poetics, Cornell University Press, pp 36-82).

Museum Academy TempleMuseum (1996), Temple (1997), and Academy (1996-7) by Charlayn von Solms

Within this triptych the muses were represented as combinations of institutional forms and repositories. This reflects the etymology of the word ‘institution’ which derives from statuere (to place). Its meaning is shared by the word reponere from which ‘repository’ is derived.


Museum 1996

This triptych was based on a dialectical model of a thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. Within this scheme Museum serves as the thesis. It is based on three main referents: the Heliconian muse Mneme (memory), the philosopher Aristotle, and the etymology of the nine Olympian muses.

Museum von SolmsMuseum by Charlayn von Solms (1996). Apologies for the image quality. These are the original scans of photographs developed from film.


Materials and construction

Museum consists of a mahogany wood container with nine interior compartments arranged over three shelves. Each of these compartments contains a single object modelled in black paraffin wax.

The design for the repository was based on the creation of ‘cabinets of curiosities’ that evolved into public museums.

The choice of wax for the objects reflects the use of wax effigies in witchcraft to summon and entrap a subject’s life-substance. A similar belief applies to naming a person or a thing.



Aristotle was an avid collector of virtually every kind of data, all of which he painstakingly labelled, classified, and categorized. In his theories regarding form and matter (where form’s dependence upon matter is stressed), the physical perceptible world provides the only basis from which knowledge of the world can be derived. The museum is therefore concerned with the real and the physical.

Aristotle and MuseumMedieval manuscript depicting Aristotle at his writing desk (1457); unknown medieval author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


Etymology of the Olympian muses

In this sculpture the taxonomy of the Olympian muses was approached through the etymology of their individual names. Hesiod’s use of etymology to convey meaning is well attested (for an excellent analysis see Homer’s Verbal Craft by Athanassios Vergadis). Each muse was assigned an object as a poetic response to her name. These were modelled in a uniform size and in the same material to stress their status as a consolidated collection. For an overview of the objects assigned to the muses see the table below:

muse name etymology object
Melpomene melpein – to sing and dance whistle
Thalia thalein – to blossom/bloom jingle bell
Erato eros – the attractive/desirable dart
Urania ouranos – the heavenly spinning top
Kleio kleos – to make known/famous desk bell
Terpsichore terpein+koros – to delight in the dance yo-yo
Polyhymnia poly+hymnus – multiple hymns/sacred songs funnel
Euterpe terpsis – to enjoy/take pleasure in castanets
Kalliope kalos+ ops – the beautiful/perfect voice klaxon


Academy 1996-7

This sculpture was based on three referents: the Heliconian muse Melete (practice/technique), the philosopher Plato, and the formal antitheses of the naturalistic representation of objects in Museum.

Academy von SolmsAcademy by Charlayn von Solms (1996-7)


Materials and construction

Academy consists of a container constructed from Pau Marvin (Brazilian yellowwood) with nine internal compartments. Each compartment contains a simple form carved from Obeche-wood. Each form was painted a different colour. These geometrical shapes are the product of formal analyses of the objects presented in Museum.

According to some traditions, a motto inscribed above the entrance to Plato’s Academy read: “Let no one enter who is ignorant of geometry”.

Geometry, as understood by the Platonists and Neo-Platonists, was not as concerned with the description of space as with the harmony of forms.



The Platonic system of knowledge was based upon an axiomatic acceptance of the existence of the Ideas (Forms). These were not unreal abstractions or metaphors for the physical world, but were considered the very basis from which all things were constructed. Platonic Forms were accessed by means of perfecting the practice of applying intensive focused thought.

Plato's AcademyMosaic from Pompeii showing Plato’s Academy (1st century BCE); Naples National Archaeological Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Jungian notion of the archetype as the basic structural element of the human psyche was originally described as the psychological equivalents of physiological instinct. In Carl Jung’s later work these archetypes begin to more closely resemble Platonic and Neo-Platonic conceptions of archetypal Forms. In other words: as autonomous patterns of meaning located within both psyche and matter.


The Olympian muses in colour and form

In contrast to the static and uniform collection of objects in Museum, the forms in Academy represent a process of transformation. Differentiation is here represented by colour. In Medieval alchemy, the colours of metals served as key markers of the stages of Transmutation. Nicolas Flamel was believed to have produced the mythical ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ using a process with nine stages. Each form in Academy was assigned a colour loosely based on Flamel’s sequence. The positions of the Olympian muses within this sequence was based on the Pythagorean numerical values explored in Temple.

muse name numerical value colour
Kalliope 1 gray
Erato 2 black
Polyhymnia 3 white
Urania 4 blue
Melpomene 5 yellow
Thalia 6 green
Kleio 7 purple
Euterpe 8 red
Terpsichore 9 gold


Temple 1997

This sculpture was based on three referents: the Heliconian muse Aoedte (song), the philosopher Pythagoras, and the synthesis of the geometric forms in Academy and the naturalistic representation of objects in Museum. In this sculpture the Olympian muses are presented as the resolution of the conservation of Museum and the innovation of Academy.

Temple von SolmsTemple by Charlayn von Solms (1997)


Materials and construction

Temple consists of a wooden repository crafted form curly Maplewood with an engraved glass tablet at its center. The design derives from Neo-Classical architecture and was stained white. A nine-numbered magic square was engraved onto the glass.

Known as a wafk, this square consists of nine numbers where the sum of any horizontal, diagonal, or vertical line is always 15.

Such ‘magic squares’ combine the understanding of numbers as emblematic of pure logic in mathematics, and as symbolic of abstract principles in numerology. In this aspect it echoes the Pythagorean belief system’s blending of mathematical speculation with religious dogma.



Most of what is known of the Pythagorean school is based on near-mythical accounts. From these it is apparent that their thinking fused rationality with mysticism. In Pythagorean philosophy numbers were the primary principles, equal to truth itself. Pythagoras was credited with creating a system of musical tuning, and developing theories where musical harmonies are derived from mathematical ratios (a theory that was recently debunked). The notion of the ‘Music of the Spheres’ represented the universe in musical terms. According to this idea, the stars, and wandering stars (planets) were believed to emit sounds, similar to the chorus of the muses.

Pythagoras and MusicIllustration depicting Pythagoras in the forge for De Musica Tonario by Johannes Cotto (c. 13th century); Johannes Afflighemensis, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

In the context of this sculptural triptych, Pythagoras serves as synthesis for the materialist world-view of Aristotle and Plato’s abstract ideals. This triptych is echoed in a verse from W. B. Yeats’ Among school children:

Plato thought nature but a spume that plays

Upon a ghostly paradigm of things;

Solider Aristotle played the taws

Upon the bottom of a king of kings;

World-famous golden-thighed Pythagoras

Fingered upon a fiddle-stick or strings

What a star sang and careless Muses heard:

Old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird.


The Olympian muses in Pythagorean numerology

In Pythagorean numerology each of the muses was assigned a number. This number was believed to mirror individual distinguishing characteristics. In Temple these Pythagorean muses are represented as a harmonious chorus by placing them within a magic square engraved on glass.

Temple magic square von SolmsDesign for the magic square in Temple

The glass allows the square to occupy the central part of the sculpture similar to the grid-like shelves in Museum and Academy. The glass tablet also serves as a mirror that renders the viewer and the space in which Temple is placed part of the sculpture. This echoes the idea that insight into a people can be gained from studying how they conceive of their gods.


For an engaging analysis of Yeats’ Among school children, enjoy the video by Louis Markos below:

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