Rubin Museum: Sacred Symbols Across Two Cultures
A museum is not the best place to view religious art. To get the full import of images with profound religious meaning you need music, chanting, incense, no buzz from the outside world. Museums by their very nature can't reproduce the ambiance of a monastery or a cathedral, but they can gather materials you might never have the chance to see elsewhere. The Rubin Museum's new show Embodying the Holy presents two distinct religious traditions, Eastern Orthodox and Tibetan Buddhist, in the most reverential manner possible in a museum in the heart of New York City.
To contrast the Eastern and Western traditions in subject matter, story telling, and iconography, the Rubin Museum curators have selected Orthodox icons, crucifixes, and paintings and juxtaposed them with Buddhist religuaries and thangkas, cloth scroll paintings used in Tibetan monasteries and family altars. As you walk through the exhibition, be sure to listen to the audio guide which contrasts and compares how the two traditions treat similar themes and concepts -- the battle of good versus evil, the notion of heaven and hell, miracles, visions, universal symbols among others. The similarities are a surprise, especially for those unfamiliar with either tradition.
In a section on "Triads," Buddhist and Christian concepts of the Trinity are explored. In Christianity, the Trinity represents the unity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, depicted as a dove, three aspects of a single God. Among works in this show, witness two New Testament Trinities and one Old Testament Trinity, also known as the "Hospitality of Abraham." Another triad is a Tibetan painting of the teacher Padmasambhava. The small images at the top of the scroll represent three divine bodies, all aspects of buddhahood.
The "Divine Feminine" group is equally stunning with an especially poignant Byzantine image of the Virgin tenderly cradling her Son. It is placed next to an image of Tara, the most popular Tibetan Buddhist female deity. This particular Tara is known as a Green Tara. She is surrounded by other small images symbolizing the infinite power she has to save other beings.
Many of the Orthodox images will be familiar while the Tibetan Buddhist ones, even though they often have the same or a similar function, might require a bit of study. Saint George, the patron saint of England, known for his bravery, is a familiar image. Almost every school kid know of his defense of the poor and slaying the dragon, a symbol of pagan Rome. Similarly, the Buddhist protector slays demons, but inner, psychological ones. He is depicted here as the six-armed Mahakala. In the Tibetan tradition his image is an object of meditation. As a "wrathful deity" his job is to quiet the mind or destroy the mind's chatter and help the person meditating reach a new level of awareness.
"Embodying the Holy: Icons in Eastern Orthodox Christianity and Tibetan Buddhism demonstrates for the first time how two very different religious traditions have utilized similar visual language and iconography to express fundamental beliefs and narratives," says Martin Brauen, Chief Curator of the Rubin Museum of Art. Sacred art and sacred images are not easily accessible, but the curators here --Ramon Prats and Martin Brauen-- have created materials to assist the viewer including a guide, accessible online at www.rmanyc.org. On view through March 7, 2011.