Visit to Asian Civilisations Museum – Part 3

Faith and Belief (Level 2)

by Hani Kamal

Level 2 has five galleries: Ancient Religion housed in two separate areas, Christian Art Gallery, Scholar Gallery, Islamic Art Gallery and Ancestors & Rituals Gallery. Both the Islamic Art and Ancestors & Rituals Galleries are under renovation, opening in December and early 2019 respectively.  In addition, there are two galleries on Level 2 for event space and as a special exhibition gallery.

The Ancient Religion Galleries hold a large collection of Hindu and Buddhist sculptures from Asia.  The displays found are from the second century up until the early twentieth century.  It also features art objects from Jainism, the third great religion of India.

ACM caption : Head of bodhisattva (Gandhara, around 4th century , Terracotta) The face and curly hair show the powerful influence of the West on the development of Buddhist art. Ancient Greece and Rome played a significant role in the development of Gandhara (in present-day Pakistan and Afghanistan). Bodhisattvas wear jewellery, and have beards and moustaches, which distinguishes them from figures of the Buddha. The jewellery seen here is typical of the Gandhara period. A circular indent on his forehead, called an urna, is a mark of nobility and illumination: it would originally have been inlaid with a precious stone. The sculpture was modelled with wet clay that was then fired. This technique allowed deep indentations and free forms, as evident in the beard and hair. Terracotta (literally, baked clay) allowed large statues to be assembled from several pieces.

Hinduism and Buddhism from India spread widely outside India including to Southeast Asia. The development of Hinduism and Buddhism then evolved combining localized features and animistic beliefs.  The concepts of the original religions took many forms. – some human, some divine with supernatural powers and some abstract. By the 7th century, the form of the images moved away from those found in India as sculptors started reflecting local characteristics. Hinduism and Buddhism were widely practiced at the royal courts. Kingships even took the form of Vishnu, adding merits to their power.  The Srivijayan era in the 7th century saw beautiful objects created depicting kings and their gods.  At the height of the Majapahit Empire, Java (13-15th century) developed its own traditions in art, merging two religions into one.

ACM caption: Buddha teaching (Gandhara, 3rd or 4th century, Schist) The hand gesture signifies the turning of the wheel of Buddhist law, and therefore indicates the Buddha teaching.The halo behind his head denotes his spirituality. Two small donor figures below stand in an attitude of adoration. Remnants of pigment indicate that the stone was originally painted. The drapery, strong muscular form, and facial features show influence from Western classical styles. But his yogic pose and eyes downcast in contemplation show the deep spirituality of the Buddhist religion.

Buddhism became popular between the 8th to 15th century in Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.  This influence lasts until today.

ACM caption : Walking Buddha ( Thailand Sukhothai, 15th or 16th century, Bronze) This image, full of fluidity and movement, was an innovation of the Sukhothai period. The dynamic posture, curvaceous arms with tapering fingers, and flowing hemline of the robe accentuate the sense of movement. He has a flamed top-knot (cintamani) and raises one hand in abhaya mudra (gestures of fearlessness). The sculpture embodies ideal features attributed to the Buddha – lotus petal-shaped eyelids, parrot beak nose, chin in the shape of the mango seed, and so on. This image probably refers to Buddha ‘s return from Tavatimsa Heaven, when he preached to his mother. It could represent the Buddha’s walking meditation in the garden after his enlightenment.

In China, Buddhism grew out of Indian beliefs and was practised alongside Confucius and Taoism.  Here, the famous male Avalokitesvara was personified in the form of Goddess of Mercy or Guan Yin, and became a female.  The virtue of a compassionate Guan Yin was more suited to a female than a male.

ACM caption: Shi Hou Guanyin China , 14th or 15th century Bronze. Acquired with funds from the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple.

The Christian Art Gallery features collections of art from China, Japan, Middle East, Southeast Asia and other countries.  Christianity was introduced by Catholic missionaries from Portugal and Spain, and later Dutch Protestants.  The art objects took a different form merging western ideologies with Asian techniques and materials.

ACM caption: Cross with the figure of Amitabha Nagoya, Japan, 1945-50 Iron –copper alloy
ACM caption: Virgin and Child Timor-Leste, 19th century Wood

The Scholars Gallery showcases Chinese beliefs and philosophy, strongly depicting Confucius teachings and Taoism practiced by scholastic officials. Here are collections of paintings, furniture and objects used by Chinese scholars depicting their lifestyles and their education.

ACM Caption: Ritual Food Vessel. This vessel was used to hold food offerings in ceremonies to honour ancestors and gods. An inscription identifies it as property of the duke of Rui, a region in present-day Shaanxi province. The circular bowl rising above a square platform recalls the symbols of heaven and earth in Chinese cosmology

For Part 1 of the ACM visit write-up, please see ‘Worth Visiting Again and Again’ 

For Part 2 of the ACM visit write-up, please see ‘Tang Shipwreck Gallery’


Author: Museum Volunteers, JMM

Museum Volunteers, JMM Taking the Mystery out of History

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