Mirroring Devotion

One of the things I love about religious art is the occasional blurring of the line between an object intended to inspire devotion and the depiction of devotion itself.  This happens in pretty much all religious traditions, but for whatever reason it struck me recently at “Buddhist Art of Myanmar,” currently on view at the Asia Society Museum in NY.  I gave it a rave review in the WSJ as have others elsewhere (or so I’m told — I actually never read reviews of shows that I am myself writing about; a sad predicament when you think about it because I miss a lot of great pieces by Holland Cotter and other wonderful writers).

Back to my musings about depicting and inspiring devotion, a word I use in the broadest of senses.  Take a look at the face and posture of this Buddha…                                         IMAG2740
The 11th-century sculpture captures a calm alertness, that sweet spot between relaxation and concentration in meditation.  Am I projecting?  Maybe.  Or maybe (and this is by far my preferred theory) my mirror neurons respond to what I see before me, so that by depicting what a model meditator looks like on the outside the artist creates an object that triggers in those who stand before it an inner echo of what that revered meditator is experiencing.  The sculpture therefore inspires devotion to the Buddha as a being who sees through to the essence of life — and, at the same time, describes the path of devotion the Buddha has taken.

Another, very poignant piece in the show does this double act differently.  It is 12th-century sculpture of the Buddha meditating as he nears death.  In Myanmar such sculptures are placed in niches that cover the walls of temple passageways.  Because they are narrow, you don’t get much distance so you see them as you walk past them.  So what appears in catalogs and art history books like this —

Scene of Buddha's death carved in sandstone around 1198 .

is experienced more like the view below so that the first thing you would see is a fellow devotee kneeling in prayer, his attention focused on the teacher/master/divinity he cannot see…view from the foot of the Buddha, showing a monk kneeling in prayer, separated from the Buddha by a wall.

…but that you eventually do get to see.  A most effective depiction of blind faith and its reward.A frontal view of the Buddha's face as the figure lies on his side, eyes almost closed, relaxed yet attentive

And now I cannot resist revisiting another Buddha head, this one disembodied and from 9th century Thailand that was at the Met in the Lost Kingdoms show (I singled it out in my WSJ review).  I am adding it here purely for the benefit of my mirror neurons… and yours.   Head of a Buddha in terra-cotta, eyes closed, with its eye brows ever so slightly in tension

3 thoughts on “Mirroring Devotion

    1. So glad you got in touch — you have a great blog and I look forward to following it. The catalogue for Buddhist Art of Myanmar is indeed very good with a wide-ranging series of essays. Since I have a copy right here, I’ll list the essay titles: “Myanmar: Forging a Nation” “Foundation Myths of Myanmar” “Inscriptions and Chronicles: This Historiography of Myanmar” “Buddhism and Its Practice in Myanmar” “Myanmar and the Soutside World” “The Buddha’s Smile: Art of the First Millennium” “Ancient Pagan: A Plain of Merit” “After Pagan: The Art of Myanmar, 1287-1900” “Buddhist Image replication in Myanmar” “Art, Power, and Merit: The Veneration of Buddha Images in Myanmar Museums”

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