What Museums Don't Reveal About Religious Art

In 1983, at the Japan Society in Manhattan, I saw an exhibit of ancient Buddhist sculpture so beautiful that I used my Visa card to the ...


In 1983, at the Japan Society in Manhattan, I saw an exhibit of ancient Buddhist sculpture so beautiful that I used my Visa card to the max to fly to Japan to see more. It was my first time here. I didn’t speak Japanese. I had not prepared any itinerary. So I started where most art tourists do, at the Tokyo National Museum. It is a spacious, clean and modern place. I felt like home.

Still, two experiences on my first day there surprised me. As I lingered over a glorious ninth-century wooden carving of a Miroku, the Buddha of the Future, a visitor near me clapped his hands quickly and sharply, twice, something (I would learn) that visitors temples and shrines do to honor a deity. Later, in another gallery, I noticed that in front of another Buddhist figure, the museum had placed a fresh lotus floating in a bowl of clear water. Through two gestures, one personal, the other institutional, the functional nature of religious images became clearer.

Our great American museums, like their Japanese counterparts, own and exhibit centuries of religious art. Yet, with few exceptions, they are content to present this art in purely aesthetic terms, as timeless masterpieces, with little or no attempt to explain, through display or labeling, how they “worked devotionally, as well as ideologically and politically, for their home audiences. As a fix, two very different small current exhibits in midtown Manhattan, one at the Cloisters encountered, the other at Columbia University Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery, highlight the political and personal utility of religious art, as a living and breathing phenomenon.

Politics, and more specifically geopolitics, is the underlying subject of “Spain 1000-1200: art at the frontiers of faith” at the Cloister. The show is a classic Met product. Its more than 40 objects – sculptures, textiles, manuscripts, most from the museum’s holdings – are high-end objects, distinguished by their rarity, their beauty or both. And in their Cloisters setting, the element of faith is written big.

The exhibition is installed in the gallery of the Fuentidueña Chapel of the museum, a space defined by a large-scale architectural work, the whole apse of the 12th century Church of San Martín from the town of Fuentidueña, in central-northern Spain. The apse was transported, stone by stone, to the Cloister in the late 1940s under a long-term loan from the Spanish government. With its tall, clean Romanesque lines and a fresco of the Virgin and Child (from a different church) covering its dome, it is a charismatic backdrop for a presentation of art from a time when three religions shared much disputed ground.

A glance at the handwritten manuscripts, chosen by Julia Perratore, assistant curator at the Met, establishes the mix. The brilliantly colored illuminations of the scenes from the Apocalypse are annotated in Latin. A double page of a Koran, handwritten on powder pink paper, is in Arabic. A Bible, made up of neatly nested text containers, is in Hebrew.

Indeed, the centuries covered by the exhibition are part of a much wider span of Spanish history, roughly from the 8th to the 15th century. Sometimes described in the modern academic term as La Convivencia, meaning “coexistence” or “living together”, the period spanned from the Muslim occupation of the Iberian Peninsula, through eras of multicultural interaction – Islamic, Christian, Jewish – and ended with the full reassertion of Christian power.

The notion of three major faith cultures interacting peacefully and productively has an attractive utopian twist. And the Met’s performing art, with its hybrid beauties, backs that up to some extent.

In a manuscript painting in the Cloister, a 10th-century Christian monk named Maius makes heavenly Jerusalem look like the Great Mosque of Cordoba. A 14th-century Hebrew Bible shimmers with interwoven Islamic patterns. Islamic textiles, some with Arabic inscriptions, were used to wrap the relics of Christian saints. A sapphire encrusted in a dramatic silver frame surrounding an ivory crucifix is ​​inscribed with four of the 99 beautiful names of Allah.

But there is plenty of evidence to suggest that taking the art of La Convivencia solely as a testament to cross-cultural harmony is wishful thinking. Another illumination by Maius shows the Babylonian ruler Belshazzar, despised as a tyrant in Jewish tradition, feasting in a Muslim-style palace. Scenes painted on a wooden coffin by an unknown artist depict a fictional military defeat of Muslims by Christian soldiers as a literal battle between darkness and light – Christians are white-skinned, Muslims gray-skinned – a stereotype visual that became commonplace as the European ‘Reconquista’ continued.

And the Church of San Martín in Fuentidueña can be seen as a strategic aesthetic element in a European nationalist propaganda campaign. Set in a walled city that stood squarely on the dividing line between the Islamic south and the Christian north, it could be read as a declaration of spiritual allegiance or ideological aggression, depending on which side of the line drawn by the faith you were.

While the Met exhibition approaches religious art largely in geopolitical terms, Wallach’s exhibition, titled “What is Buddhist art for? » takes a more personal approach. Here too, the work comes largely from an internal collection – that of Columbia University – and some distance from the Met style star. But if deployed imaginatively, even a material considered secondary can yield illuminating results. And it does so here in the hands of D. Max Moerman, professor of Asian and Middle Eastern cultures at Barnard College.

In a wall text, he sets out his objectives for the exhibition: to take a collection of religious objects from Japan, China, Tibet and elsewhere in Asia out of the context of the history of academic art and put them back in temples and tombs and devotional hands for which they were made. Many precious objects in the cloister were, like the church of Fuentidueña itself, intended to announce political and ideological power. The more modest of the Wallach were designed as powerful, intimately transactional tools.

Some are pleasing to the eye, such as a small 13th-century carved wooden Japanese seated Buddha. With his golden skin and rock-crystal eyes, he would have shone and shone with life in the candlelight on a house altar. A cheerfully warm 6th-century marble sculpture of the Future Buddha looks smoothed and darkened as if it had been manipulated. An inscription tells us that it was made to measure for a man named Liu Shirong anxious to ensure the rebirth of his mother in paradise.

Much of what is in the show is the opposite of the ostentatious or the monumental. A copper and turquoise amulet box from Tibet, designed to hold a protective image or relic, is small enough to be kept in a purse or worn on a belt. In some cases, an object’s power source is permanently hidden, as in the case of a small wooden pagoda-shaped stupa, one of millions distributed by an 8th-century Japanese empress to atone for the death of enemies killed under his watch. The size of a chess piece, each stupa contains a printed incantation sealed within, all the more powerful for not being seen.

Some entries in the show are almost purely performative. The power of Tibetan bronze ritual bells lies far less in their appearance than in the wake-up sound they emit. An 18th-century Tibetan manuscript is just a scrap of paper, but carries a vocal and instrumental score for a tantric serenade. And when it comes to the transactional, nothing beats the efficiency of an 18th century Japanese icon of the Amida Buddha, of limitless life. if your eyes are fixed on it at the time of your death, you sail straight through TSA PreCheck to heaven.

There are, of course, social and political stories behind all this art, stories of wars fought, ideologies promoted and suppressed. But it’s the spiritual utility of the Wallach objects that resonates with me the most, because that’s what I experienced in Japan all those years ago, and what Western museums, obsessed with the “head -d’oeuvre”, rarely try to tell us about it.

A few days into my stay, I left Tokyo and headed out by train, bus and on foot through the countryside, stopping at temples and shrines, staying in small inns and monasteries, and every day I witnessed the devotion in progress: seeing flowers and water glasses placed in front of sculptures, picking up the scent of incense in the air, hearing the sound of two rapid claps, an applause of respect and awakening, a gesture that said: I am here; you are here; together.


Spain 1000-1200: art at the frontiers of faith

Through Feb. 13, The Met Cloisters, (212) 923-3700; metmuseum.org.

What is Buddhist art for?

Until March 12, The Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University;

212-853-1623; wallach.columbia.edu.

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