Tree & Serpent: Early Buddhist Art in India, 200 BCE-400 CE
Metropolitan Museum of Art
July 21 - November 13, 2023
Reviewed by Ed Voves
Original Photography by Anne Lloyd
There is often a very thin line dividing an art museum gallery from a place of religious worship. One might almost describe it as an "open border" between the realm of the spirit and the secular world of scholarship and art appreciation.
On a number of occasions, I have felt something akin to a religious experience while visiting an art museum. This has occurred several times at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, notably in the spring of 2014 when I attended the press preview of Lost Kingdoms: Hindu-Buddhist Sculpture of Early Southeast Asia. I had such a powerful sense of being on "holy ground" that I forgot, for a brief moment or two, that I was at The Met.
When I saw the announcement that John Guy, the Met's internationally-renowned curator of Asian art who organized Lost Kingdoms, was working on a new exhibition, I was thrilled at the news. Perhaps anticipating more than was reasonable to expect, I wondered if I would have a similar epiphany.
At the July 17, 2023 preview of Tree & Serpent: Early Buddhist Art in India, 200 BCE-400 CE, I received a "yes and no" answer.
I had to pinch myself a couple of time to recall that this same gallery at The Met, only a few months ago, was the site for the equally astonishing exhibition, Lives of the Gods: Divinity in Maya Art. An entirely new realm, the world of Buddhism in its earliest years in southern India, is now on view in Gallery 999 at The Met.
Also of note, The Met sponsored a prayer ceremony at the press preview, led by Buddhist monks from the New York Buddhist Vihara Foundation. These devout monks, who reside in a monastery in Queens, New York City, chanted sutras, the spoken words of the Buddha as recorded in Sri Lankan Buddhist tradition. It was a moving and unforgettable experience.
Images of the contemplative Buddha are what most non-specialist art lovers, like myself, associate with Buddhist art. However, many of the works on view in Tree & Serpent are narrative bas-reliefs, teeming with figures or drama. These were affixed to the pillars, railings and walls of the stūpa shrines, providing visual accounts of the life and teachings of the Buddha, much as stained glass windows in the Gothic Cathedrals of medieval Europe recounted the Gospel stories about Jesus.
Other statues on view depict deities only marginally related to the Buddha. These are nature spirits known as yakshas or yakshis or the goddess of abundance, Sri Lakshmi.
To be fair, museum exhibitions are not intended to create a spiritual state of mind or heart, though sometimes "spirit" does makes its presence felt. Instead, the task of curators is to reach back into time to present new insights about art, frequently with artifacts recently unearthed from archaeological sites, as is the case with Tree & Serpent. These are often unfamiliar to the general public, even unsettling on occasion.
In such instances, it takes a considerable amount of effort to evaluate and appreciate these ancient, yet newly discovered, works of art.
The past does not always give up its secrets easily. There are certainly a number of exhibition objects in Tree & Serpent which require intensive study to comprehend. Even then, with the guidance of brilliant scholars like John Guy, the meanings or significance of some of these may still be difficult to determine.
By way of example, let us look at the railing cover or coping from the Great Stūpa at Madhya Pradesh. It was carved from sandstone, dating to 150 to 100 BCE, and shows two men scaling a mountain.
The two men are forest dwellers. They carry wicker baskets on their backs and are grasping pegs which have been inserted into a mountain side. Behind the pair and beneath their feet is a sacred plant, a wish-fulfilling lotus vine.
Clearly, something of import is happening, but the exact meaning still eludes a definitive solution. Are the men scaling a mountain in search of treasure to bring back to deposit in honor of the Buddha in a stūpa? Or are they quarrying rock to construct a stūpa, durable stone being reserved for building sacred shrines?
This scene almost certainly illustrates a jataka tale, one of a vast corpus of stories and fables related to the Buddha. Many carved bas-relief narratives like this cannot be matched with texts of jataka tales. Other images brilliantly correspond to written jataka texts.
The Mugapakkha-jataka, depicted in the railing pillar medallion shown above, tells the story of a prince (the Buddha in disguise) who takes a vow of silence, due to his previous life transgressions. The prince's father, fearing disaster, orders the prince to be slain. But the royal chariot driver recognizes the prince as the future Buddha and spares his life. The prince's parents come to realize his divinity too and venerate him.
This jataka scene, which dates to the same period as the mysterious tableau of the forest dwellers, is a masterpiece of story-telling, concise, coherent and beautifully carved. If it requires a bit of effort to comprehend, this version of the Mugapakkha-jataka is a tremendously appealing work of art and a treasure of spiritual awareness
The religious art of one culture often includes imagery which people of a different faith experience may find difficult to accept. Western people, raised in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and Buddhists view snakes from very different perspectives. The snake, seen as a treacherous deceiver in the Holy Bible's Book of Genesis, is viewed much more positively in Buddhism.
When we see the multi-headed cobra rearing-up on the carved railing pillar (below), we are witnessing a caring, nurturing deed rather than a dangerous reptile about to strike. The hooded-head of the snake acts like an umbrella shielding the Buddha from a dangerous storm.
The protective cobra is known as the Naga Mucalinda. In these scenes, the Buddha often is not physically present, but is represented by a pair of footprints or by an empty throne, as shown above, encircled by the coils of the snake's body.
This Naga Mucalnda scene is one of the most ancient works of Buddhist art on view in Tree and Serpent. The early date is significant. So is the geographic locale of its creation: southern India, in the region known as the Deccan.
What we see on the walls and display cases of the Met's Gallery 999 is nothing less than the visual representation of the birth of Buddhism. In many of the works on view, we glimpse elements of earlier nature-based religious cults, including the worship of snake deities, which were incorporated into Buddhism as it developed in the Deccan, remote from cultural contact with outside civilizations.
Later, as the exhibition shows, there was significant mercantile contact with the Roman Empire. But Tree & Serpent is essentially an epic exhibit about India. The generous participation of the Indian government and Indian museums in organizing Tree & Serpent deserves the highest praise and appreciation.
Tree & Serpent is also the story of the birth or rebirth of art in India, since very few works of art survived the long centuries before the rise of Buddhism. As the devout disciples of the Buddha built stūpa shrines across vast stretches of the Deccan, they encircled these sacred buildings with carved depictions of the Buddha's life which have endured the test of time and - some of them - now hang on the walls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
I have the feeling that I may experience an epiphany, after all.
Text copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved.
Images copyright of Anne Lloyd, all rights reserved.
Introductory Image: Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2023) Railing Pillar with Naga Mucalinda Pillar Protecting the Buddhapada (detail), ca. 150-100 BCE. Sandstone: H. 64 15/16 in. (165 cm), W. 12 5/8 in. (32 cm), D. 15 3/4 in. (23 cm) Lent by Allahabad Museum, Prayagraj, Uttar Pradesh
Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2023) Gallery view of the Tree & Serpent exhibition, with Dharmachakra, ca. 200. copper-alloy: H. 12 3/4 in. (32.4 cm.) W. 7 3/4 in. (19.7 cm.) Diam. 8 in. (20.3 cm). Lent by Bihar Museum, Patna, India
Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2023) Drum Panel with Veneration of Relics, ca. 1st century. Limestone: H. 67 5/16 in. (171 cm). W. 40 5/16 in. (104 cm). D. 6 11/16 in. (17 cm). Lent by Amaravati Heritage Center and Museum, Andhra Pradesh.
Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2023) Gallery view of Tree & Serpent, showing a model of a stūpa built by the Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture, Cooper Union
Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2023) Prayer ceremony at the press preview of Tree & Serpent, conducted by the monks from New York Buddhist Vihara Foundation.
Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2023) Buddha Offering Protection, 5th century, (left) Copper alloy: H. 16 in. (40.6 cm) W. 5 ¼ in. (13.3 cm) d. 4 ½ in. (11.4 cm) Metropolitan Museum collection; and Buddha Granting Boons, 5th-6th century. Copper alloy: H. 12 1/2 in. (41.7 cm) W. 3 15/16 in. (10 cm) d. 3 1/8 in. (8 cm) British Museum collection.
Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2023) Drum slab with Five Buddha-life Narratives (detail), 3rd century. Limestone: H. 78 3/8 in. (199 cm). W. 39 3/8 in. (100 cm). D. 8 1/4 in. (21 cm). Lent by Archaeological Museum, ASI, Nagarjunakonda, Andra Pradesh.
Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2023) Gallery view of Tree and Serpent, showing showing a red sandstone statue of the Goddess of Abundance, Sri Lakshmi, 2nd century. Lent by the National Museum, New Delhi.
Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2023) Elephants Venerating the Ramagrama Stupa, late 1st century. Limestone: H. 12 13/16 in. (32.5 cm) W. 25 3/4 in. (68 cm) d. 16 9/16 in. (42 cm) British Museum collection.
Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2023) Gallery view of Tree and Serpent, showing a railing coping fragment with lotus bloom carving from the Barhut Great Stupa, 150-100 BCE.
Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2023) Railing Coping from Bharhut Great Stupa, showing Forest Dwellers Scaling or Quarrying a Rock Face (detail), 150-100 BCE. Sandstone: H. 13 3/4 in. (35 cm), W. 61 13/16 in. (157 cm), D. 10 1/4 in. (26 cm) Lent by National Museum, New Delhi.
Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2023) Railing Pillar Medallion with Mugapakkha-jataka, c. 150-100 BCE. Sandstone: H. 24 13/16 in. (63 cm). W. 22 1/16 in. (56 cm). D. 6 5/16 in. (16 cm). Lent by India Museum, Kolkata.
Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2023) Railing Pillar with Naga Mucalinda, 2nd-1st century, BC. Sandstone: : H. 43 5/16 in. (110 cm). W. 21 5/8 in. (55 cm). D. 19 1/2 in. (53 cm). Lent by National Museum, Delhi.
Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2023) Gallery views of Tree and Serpent. The bottom photo shows Torana Architraves, a lion in front, with an elephant behind, 3rd-4th century. Lent by Department of Heritage, Telangana.
Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2023) Drum Panel with Stupa Veneration and Seminal Buddha-life events, 1st century. Limestone: H. 64 9/16 in. (164 cm). W. 45 ¼ in. (115 cm). D. 6 in. (22 cm). Lent by Amaravati Heritage Center & Museum, Andhra Pradesh.