Indian art in European churches

Print edition : January 18, 2019

Doorway of Madhavpura Mahavihara, Udaygiri, Orissa. This Buddhist site flourished from the 7th to 12th centuries CE. By then, the depiction of the world of nature on the temple doorway had become quite elaborate. Parallel bands were made depicting ‘vases of plenty’, and the spirit of nature emanates from them in the form of endless vines, playful boys and maidens who personify the fruitfulness of nature. Photo: Benoy K. Behl

Doorway, Convento De Cristo, early medieval period, Tomar, Portugal. It is amazing to see the representation of the ‘vases of plenty’, the vyalas and the continuous vine of life, carrying in it numerous creatures and joyously presenting the world of nature in the carvings around the doorway. These are exactly the themes on the doorways of ancient Indian stupas. In later Indian temples of the ancient and the medieval period, these themes are made in parallel bands around the doorway, precisely as we see them here. Photo: Benoy K. Behl

Kirtimukha, relief on pillar, Cave 1, Ajanta. The life of the natural order is seen emanating from this “glorious face”, as if in the form of auspicious garlands. In this imaginative depiction, other mythical creatures are also seen with wide open mouths to accept the garlands. Photo: Benoy K. Behl

Lion disgorging the vine of life, detail, painted tiles, late medieval period, Patio del Yeso, Seville, Spain. This image is remarkably similar to the themes of ancient Indian art which are seen everywhere in Bharhut and Sanchi. The lion disgorges the vine of life which moves all around him and brings forth the blossoms of the natural world. Photo: Benoy K. Behl

Detail atop doorway, late medieval period, Palacio National De Sintra, Portugal. This “glorious face”, or kirtimukha, is above a doorway, as often seen in temples and caves of the ancient period in India. As in the Indian tradition, we can see the bounteous life of nature emanating from the open mouth. Photo: Benoy K. Behl

“Glorious faces” above the doorway, next to Cathedral of Palermo, Sicily, Italy. Auspicious garlands of the natural order are seen emerging from the mouths of “glorious faces”, as in the kirtimukhas of the ancient tradition in India. Photo: Benoy K. Behl

Detail of marble panel, Cathedral of Palermo, medieval period, Sicily. It is wonderful to see the combination of aquatic life forms with foliage and the human in both the figures. They also have birds sitting on their heads, combining beings of water, earth and air. In the centre, we see a “vase of plenty” rising out of a flower. Photo: Benoy K. Behl

“Vase of plenty”, stone archway, church entrance, medieval period , Basilica San Marco, Venice, Italy. This vase, or purna-ghata, is carried on the shoulders of two men, reminding us of the yakshas and yakshis of the stupa railings who were intimately associated with the blossoming of the abundant world of nature. Photo: Benoy K. Behl

Detail, painted wall, Convento De Cristo, medieval period, Tomar. The joyousness of life is expressed in the playful beings who inhabit the auspicious spaces created by the continuous vine of abundance. This is just like the images seen at the entrances of the doorways of the temples and stupas of Ratnagiri and Udayagiri. Photo: Benoy K. Behl

Detail, painted wall, Convento De Cristo, medieval period, Tomar. The ecstasy of the world of forms is beautifully expressed in the plant, bird and human life seen in this depiction. Photo: Benoy K. Behl

Detail, painted tiles Patio del Yeso, late medieval period, Seville. The unending vine is seen everywhere, bringing forth the rich and playful world of plant, animal and human forms. Photo: Benoy K. Behl

Composite creature, carved pillar, Convento De Cristo, medieval period, Tomar. The goat-like legs and feet of this otherwise human creature transport us to a world of joyous fantasy. Such composite creatures, called kinnaras, populated the pillars and ceilings of a number of caves in India from the 2nd century BCE onwards. The fruit and foliage growing out of the head of the figure are entrancing. Photo: Benoy K. Behl

Peacock and “vase of plenty”, mosaic detail, medieval period, Basilica San Marco, Venice. Peacocks are a favourite Indian motif in the art of the early churches, just as they are popular across Asia, all the way to Japan. Photo: Benoy K. Behl

Detail, painted pillar tiles, Patio del Yeso, late medieval period, Seville. This is a fascinating depiction of composite creatures and the interconnectedness of life. The foliated feet of the human figures at the bottom is noteworthy. The lower part of the central figure is graceful plant form which ends in the faces of two large birds. The arms of the central figure appear to be foliated, but in the shape of birds’ wings. On her head, the figure has a “vase of plenty” from which emanates a profusion of life. Photo: Benoy K. Behl

Effusive life of nature, detail of marble panel, Cathedral of Palermo, medieval period, Sicily. The abundant life of nature is expressed in this composite figure, who is seen emerging from a “vase of plenty” and holds on her head another such vessel. She looks to be partly human and partly a flower and is flanked by composite creatures. Photo: Benoy K. Behl

Sculpted detail, doorway, Convento De Cristo, Tomar, early medieval period. To the side of the entrance to the convent, we see a succession of “vases of plenty” from which comes forth the life of the natural world. This is exactly the theme we see in the ancient stupas and temples, including the easy contiguity between the flora and fauna of the world. Photo: Benoy K. Behl

Composite creature, fresco, Patio del Yeso, Seville, late medieval period. Such composite creatures show a remarkable similarity with the themes of ancient Indian art dating from the second century BCE onwards. Just as in the art of the Sunga period, this creature shows the connectedness of all life forms. This figure would be termed a kinnara in Indian art. He also reminds us of the numerous naga-devas of Indian art. The endless vine of life is seen on either side of him. Photo: Benoy K. Behl

Composite creature and lion, painted pillar tiles, Patio del Yeso, late medieval period, Seville. The complexity of the composite creature is marvellous. Beings of the terrestrial world, the aquatic world and plants of many kinds are seamlessly woven together to form a living tapestry, as was seen in the early art of the Bharhut stupa railings. Photo: Benoy K. Behl

Images in early church art in Spain, Portugal and Italy are remarkably similar to those of ancient Indian art in the stupas at Bharhut, Sanchi and elsewhere.
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