Monday, December 5, 2016

An Interdisciplinary Look at the Relationship between Early Christian and Hindu Art

Jesus alongside Ganesha, the son of Shiva and the Hindu "remover of obstacles"
Something that I have always heard as an undergraduate at UAB is that art is related to a variety of subjects and that the humanities do not exist in a vacuum. So, I was not shocked when I found links between art and sociology while studying sociologist Pitrim Sorokin; however, I was pleasantly surprised when I found culturally-based connections between Early Christian and Hindu art in my study of him, having been surrounded by a Christian society my entire life and being interested in Hindu art as my area of focus for art history.

Pitrim Sorokin
In his work Social and Cultural Dynamics (1937), Pitrim Sorokin proposed the classification of societies based on their cultural mentalities, which he saw as being manifested in the art and architecture of cultures throughout time. A society, at any given time, could have a primarily sensate culture, which is defined by its characteristic belief that true reality is material and the pursuit of science, technology, and hedonistic achievements; an ideational culture, which is defined by its characteristic belief that true reality is transcendent and the pursuit of supersensory philosophies; and an idealistic or integral society that merges the two cultures’ principle beliefs and assumes true reality to be a mixture of both the tangible and supersensory. With these categories in mind, I found that Early Christian and Hindu art share similarities that are rooted in their common adherence to the “ideal type” (a concept that derives from sociologist Max Weber’s research) of an ideational cultural mentality. By this I mean that they similarly correspond to typical “courses of conduct” of what is designated as the ideal type of a particular categorization – in this case, the ideational cultural mentality. This correspondence to the ideal type is particularly evident in their manner of decorating, their effort to immerse the viewer in the supersensory, and their endeavor to diverge from reality in their attempt, as Sorkin claimed, to “represent things more nearly as they are in God, or nearer to their source."

The mentalities that these two cultures share is what Sorokin deems “ascetic ideationalism,” in which individuals seek to satisfy themselves by minimizing carnal needs and by supplementing themselves with a complete detachment from the sensate, “illusory” world and themselves. Here are some examples of how this mentality is similarly revealed through art:

Above and below: Illustrations from the Book of Kells (c. 800 CE)
My first example is an Irish manuscript (keep in mind that Ireland and India are about 8,000 km apart) produced in the ninth century by Early Christian artists. The “Book of Kells,” a religious tome that that contained the four Gospels of the New Testament alongside dense, complex geometric patterning and interlacing, swirling motifs that submerge figures of humans and animals throughout the manuscript, appears to attempt to immerse the reader in its abstracted illustrations and dissolve the self. The density of decoration, when juxtaposed with Christian symbolism, removes the viewer-reader from his or her physical space in the sensate world through encouraging meditation on the complicated ornamentation over anything else. As the figures in the images are swallowed up by the decoration, so too is the observer. The abstraction of “reality” renounces the physical world for the “true reality” of the spiritual “realm” that the “Book of Kells” depicts, something conveyed as complicated and luxurious, but not something tangible or even three-dimensional. The figures of people and religious entities in the manuscript are similarly flattened and non-human as evidence of their separation from the sensate world.

An example of a copper Sri Yantra
Though not as overtly complicated, Hindu yantras accomplish similar ends. These images, typically composed of multiple concentric forms within a square with clear demarcations of the cardinal directions, are related to the typical floor plan of a Hindu temple due to their association with the divine. The geometric shapes that appear within yantras emanating from the central point (or bindu) signify unity between all forms. Though used for a variety of purposes, the primary goal of the yantra is for the user to meditate and thus achieve a greater understanding of the metaphysical by letting one’s self go within the process. In particular, the Sri Chakra, which includes a representation of Shiva, is intended to show the totality of the chronology of existence, along with the user's own unity with the cosmos. The usage of abstract forms within all yantras encourages viewers not to dwell on the physical reality but rather on what is beyond the illusion. By following the patterns with one’s eyes, and thus one’s thoughts, individual consciousness is believed to attune itself to the consciousness of the universe – a belief that was adapted to later Buddhist thought and endured in relation to their mandalas. In this unity, the self is dissolved into the ultimate reality.

Carvings along the walls of the Sun Temple of Modhera (1026 CE)
Yantras sometimes also serve as representations of Hindu deities – notably Kali or Shiva, as mentioned previously. Through representing these divine beings as non-figural, yantras separate the entities from the illusory, physical realm. In a similar fashion, the Sun Temple of Modhera also contains sculptures that do not reflect physical reality. While the sculptures of the temple appear fleshly and are articulated in a way that reflects the mastery of the artisans, the faces and body shapes of all the figures are uniform and abstracted. Their smooth forms and simplified facial features are unattainable by human standards and are posed in a limited number of stances that are repeated throughout both the exterior and the interior of the buildings at the temple. Per hierarchical proportion, the more significant figures of ─üdityas (sun deities) and vedi (goddesses,) set off in niches throughout the sabha mandapa (assembly hall) building, are larger than the human figures, which are so densely packed together that they appear to dissolve into patterning. This unrealistic state of being that the sculptural figures are in is complimented by the unnatural setting that they exist in. While they protrude into the landscape surrounding the temple, they occupy a space that does not reflect reality. The figures are placed against blank backgrounds in bands of related sculptures, which are stacked on top of each other. The divergence from reality can arguably be seen as an attempt to represent these deities “more nearly as they are in God, or nearer to their source” by depicting them as incompatible with the sensate world.

One of the Bucovina Painted Monasteries
The paintings on monasteries of Bucovina in Romania illustrate a similar divergence from reality. Built in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the monasteries employ Byzantine-influenced paintings to convey religious stories. As the Byzantine style of art avoided realistic depictions of religious figures so as not to recall the sensate qualities of Greek and Roman “idols,” which were condemned by the church, the Byzantine figures are flattened, unshaded, and abstracted. This does not suggest a lack of skill, rather, a movement away from the celebration of the physical human body in favor of the non-physical. They are set in vividly colored backgrounds that are divorced from reality. The artists do not attempt to recreate the “illusory world,” rather, they cast the figures in a heavenly landscape and abstracted their appearances in order to separate them from the viewers. This, like the sculptures at the Sun Temple of Modhera, reflects a rejection of the sensate world in the favor of the spiritual, supersensory world. Not only that, but both the Sun Temple and the painted monasteries utilize figures as if they are patterns, folding into the fabric of this supersensory reality, much like what is seen in the “Book of Kells.” All of this indicates an artistic adherence to the ideal type of the ascetic ideational mentality within these sites.

This adherence to the ideal type of the ascetic ideational mentality reveals similarities between two cultures that are not often compared. In the future, I would like to do more research on why exactly these similarities exist – be it due to regional proximity between the Early Christians and the Hindus or derivations of Hindu thought in Abrahamic religions – who knows! There are many implications for this research that require further attention, and I hope my preliminary study inspires reactions from students in other fields.

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