In 1983, at the Japan Society in Manhattan, I saw a show of early Buddhist sculpture so beautiful that I took my Visa card to fly to Japan to find more. It was my first time there. I can’t speak Japanese. I do not prepare the journey. So I started where most art tourists do, at the Tokyo National Museum. It’s a spacious, clean fenced place with a modern feel. I feel at home.
However, two experiences on my first day there surprised me. As I lingered in front of Miroku’s glorious ninth-century wood carving, Buddha of the Future, a visitor near me clapped his hands quickly and vigorously twice, something (I’ll find out) that the Visitors to temples and shrines must honor a deity. Then, in another gallery, I noted that in front of another Buddha image, the museum had placed a fresh lotus floating in a bowl of clear water. Through two gestures, one individual and the other institutional, the functional nature of religious images has been clearly shown.
Major American museums, like their Japanese counterparts, own and display centuries-old works of religious art. With a few exceptions, however, they are pleased to present this art purely aesthetically, as timeless masterpieces, with little or no attempt to explain, through display or labeling. , how they conscientiously “worked” as well as ideologically and politically, for their original audience. By fixing two small and very different exhibitions currently in Manhattan, one at Met Cloistersthe other is at Columbia University Miriam and Ira D. Wallach . Art Gallerybrought the political and personal utility of religious art to the fore, as a living phenomenon.
Politics, and specifically geopolitics, is the fundamental theme of “Spain 1000-1200: Art at the Border of Faith” at Cloisters. The show is a classic Met production. Its more than 40 objects – sculptures, textiles, manuscripts, most from museum property – are among the highest valued objects, distinguished by rarity, outstanding beauty or both. And in the context of their Cloisters, the element of faith is huge.
The show is installed in the museum’s Fuentidueña Chapel Gallery, a space defined by a complete, full-scale structure apse of the church of San from the 12th century Martín from the town of Fuentidueña in central north-central Spain. Apse was shipped, in stone, in stone, to the Cloisters in the late 1940s as a long-term loan from the Spanish government. With clean, high Romanesque lines and a fresco of the Virgin Mary and the Child (from another church) spanning the dome, it is a fascinating setting for artistic presentation. from an era when the three religions shared the hotly contested terrain.
A quick glance at the handwritten manuscripts, picked up by Julia Perratore, an assistant manager at the Met, makes for a combination. The brightly colored lights of the Doomsday scenes are captioned in Latin. A double page from the Quran, handwritten on pink paper, in Arabic. The Bible, compiled in neatly nested text boxes, is in Hebrew.
Indeed, the centuries on display in the exhibition cover a much larger period of Spanish history, between the 8th and 15th centuries. Sometimes described in modern academic terms. La Convivencia, meaning “to coexist” or “to live together”, a period that dates back to the Muslim occupation of the Iberian Peninsula, through periods of multicultural interaction – Islam, Christianity Christianity, Judaism – and ending with a full reassertion of Christian authority.
The concept of three major faith-based cultures interacting peacefully and effectively has a utopian appeal. And the art of the Met show, with its hybrid beauties, to some extent supported that.
In a manuscript drawing at the Cloisters, a 10th-century Christian monk named Maius made the heavenly Jerusalem look a lot like the Great Mosque of Cordoba. The 14th-century Hebrew Bible shimmers with Islamic interlacing patterns. Muslim textiles, some with Arabic inscriptions, were used to wrap the relics of Christian saints. A sapphire set in a spectacular silver frame surrounds an ivory cross engraved with four of the 99 Beautiful Names of Allah.
But there is plenty of evidence that it is desirable to treat La Convivencia art purely as a record of intercultural harmony. Another light of Maius shows Babylonian ruler Belshazzar, considered a tyrant by Jewish tradition, dining in an Islamic-style palace. Scenes painted on a wooden coffin by an unknown artist depict a fictional “military defeat” by Christian soldiers as a literal battle between darkness and light – white Christians, gray Muslims – a visual stereotype that has become as pervasive as Europe’s “Reconquista” is pushed up.
And the church of San Martín in Fuentidueña can be seen as a strategic aesthetic element in the European nationalist propaganda campaign. Set in a fortified town, neatly straddling the dividing line between the Muslim south and the Christian north, it can be read as a declaration of spiritual allegiance or spiritual aggression. ideology, depending on which side of the line of faith you draw.
If the Met exhibition approaches religious art largely in terms of geopolitics, the Wallach exhibition, titled “What is the Use of Buddhist Art?” have a more personal hit. Here too, the work is largely from an internal collection – of Columbia University – and a distance from the Met-style starriness. But if implemented in an imaginary way, even the material considered as a second series can yield bright results. And it’s done here by the curator of D. Max Moerman, professor of Asian and Middle Eastern cultures at Barnard College.
In a text on the wall, he set out his goal for the show: to lift a set of religious objects originating from Japan, China, Tibet and elsewhere in Asia out of the historical context. academic art history and take them back to the temples and tombs and dedicated hands with which they were made. Many of the valuable objects at the Cloisters, like the Fuentidueña church itself, are intended to advertise political power and ideology. The much more modest ones at Wallach were considered intimately traded power tools.
Some look lovely, like a small carved wooden 13th-century Japanese reclining Buddha. With gilded skin and stone crystal eyes, it would sparkle and glow with life under the candlelight on the ancestral altar. A cheerfully casual, sixth-century marble sculpture of the Future Buddha looks smoothed and darkened as if heavily processed. An inscription tells us that it was customary for a man named Liu Shirong, who was anxious to ensure his mother’s rebirth in heaven.
Much of what’s on the show is the opposite of fanfare or grandeur. A bronze and turquoise amulet from Tibet, designed to hold protective images or relics, small enough to be carried in a purse or worn on a belt. In some cases, an object’s energy source is permanently hidden, such as in the case of a small wooden pagoda-shaped pagoda, one of the millions distributed by a Japanese queen in the second century. eighth century to atone for enemies killed under her supervision. About the size of a chess piece, each stupa has a spell sealed inside, all of which is more powerful than ever to be seen.
Some items on the show are almost purely performance. The power of ritual bronze bells from Tibet lies in their appearance much less than the awakening sound they make. An 18th-century Tibetan manuscript is just a scrap of paper, but carries a vocal and instrumental part for a tantric serenade. And for trading, nothing beats the effectiveness of an 18th-century Japanese Amitabha symbol, of Infinite Life. if your eyes are on it as soon as you die, you will go straight through TSA PreCheck to Paradise.
There is, of course, the social and political history behind all this art, the history of wars that have been fought, of the ideologies promoted and repressed. But it is the spiritual utility of the Wallach objects that resonates most strongly with me, because that is what I experienced in Japan years ago, and what Western museums , fixed as “masterpiece”, rarely tried to tell us.
A few days after I stayed here, I left Tokyo and traveled by train, bus, and on foot into the countryside, stopping at temples and shrines, staying in small inns and monasteries, and The day saw the devotion in progress: saw the flowers and the cups of water being placed. standing in front of the sculptures, smelling of incense, hearing the applause of two people, a respectful clapping and waking up, a gesture saying: I’m here; you are there; together.
Spain 1000-1200: Art at the border of faith
Through February 13, The Met Cloisters, (212) 923-3700; metmuseum.org.
What Is The Use Of Buddhist Art?
Adopted March 12, Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University;
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/03/arts/design/religion-art-politics-met-devotion-columbia.html What museum does not reveal about religious art