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.

Stupas are amongst the earliest Indian monuments that survive in the Buddhist and Jaina traditions. Recent excavations near Nalanda (in Bihar) have also unearthed a large mud stupa built between the eighth and the 10th centuries BCE. This may be a stupa of the Ajivikas, an ascetic sect that were also known to have stupas.

In Indic thought, the final truth is formless, arupa or nirguna. The concept of the stupa (in Buddhist, Jaina and Ajivika worship) and the linga (or a “symbol” of the Hindu tradition) are explained in the Vishnudharmottara Purana: “The best way in which the eternal is to be imagined is without form.” The most revered linga of Tamil Nadu is in the Chidambaram temple. On the parting of the silver curtains in front of the linga, one sees nothing but empty space. This is the ultimate presentation of the Upanishadic concept of nirguna, or the formless eternal.

“For seeing the true world, the eyes are to be closed in meditation.” Thus, a simple form that does not remind us of men or women, animals, the fruits of the earth or any of the shapes of the material world around us is the best thing to have before us when we wish to meditate upon the eternal.

The Indian temple or stupa complex is a place where the cosmos is replicated and explained to the devotee: from the representation of the unmanifest eternal to the multitude of forms of the world. When the devotee comes to the temple (or to the railings around the stupa), he circumambulates, or goes around it. Here, on the temple walls or stupa railings, are the multiplicity of the forms of the world around us: men and women, animals, birds, flowers and fruits.

The blossoming of the world of nature is a tradition that is seen in the earliest-surviving railings of the stupas and even in the walls of temples that are built today. A vine of creative abundance is often depicted, running up the door jambs and across the architraves. The artists playfully combine humans, animals, birds and plants as composite creatures. This is the depiction of the maya or mithya, which is the world around us, albeit with a playful and delightful touch.

A great tradition began with the earliest-surviving Buddhist stupa railings of the second century BCE in Bharhut and Sanchi in India. It is a tradition that continues even today, even as far away as in the temples of Japan. While the focus of one’s meditation lies beyond the railings of the stupa (or inside the temple), the outer sections of the edifice reverentially present the natural forces and the abundant fertility of the world around us.

While travelling in Spain, Portugal and Italy, my co-researcher Sujata Chatterji and I were pleasantly surprised to find images in early church art that were remarkably similar to those of ancient Indian art; images that are seen everywhere in Bharhut, Sanchi (both in Madhya Pradesh) and others filled the wall paintings and other depictions in the early churches of Europe.

Spain and Portugal were under Arab rule for about eight centuries from the early eighth century onwards. This was the period in which Western Europe imbibed many concepts in science, mathematics, medicine, agriculture, art, literature, music, rational thinking and knowledge of Greek philosophy and science from Arab rulers. This was the period that transformed Western Europe. Much of what the Arabs brought to Europe was Indian in origin, including Arabic translations of the ancient Indian astronomer and mathematician Aryabhatta. In fact, the numerals of mathematics that the Arabs brought to Europe were called “Hindi” by them as they came from the Indian subcontinent.

Along with ideas of astronomy and mathematics, the Arabs must have been carriers of the highly developed motifs of ancient Indian art found in the early European churches. European art historians were not familiar with ancient Indian art and called these thousands of representations “pagan”. Actually, these are highly developed philosophical themes of ancient Indian art that appear to have travelled to Europe.

Thousands of composite creatures found across the early churches in Spain, Portugal and Italy show a striking similarity with the themes of ancient Indian art from the second century BCE onwards. Just as in the art of the Sunga period, these creatures show the connectedness of all life forms. The endless vine of life is also seen, often coming out of purna-ghatas (vases of plenty). These vines of creative abundance move sinuously across the paintings and onto the doorjambs of the churches, as they did on the stupa railings and temple doorways, bringing with them the numerous forms of the world. In later Indian temples of the ancient and medieval periods, this theme is made in parallel bands, which are made on the sides and above the doorway. It is fascinating to see this manner of depiction followed exactly on the doorways of early churches.

Benoy K. Behl is a film-maker, art historian and photographer. He has taken over 50,000 photographs of Asian monuments and art heritage and made 142 documentaries, which are screened regularly at major cultural institutions worldwide. His photographic exhibitions have been held in 59 countries, and he has delivered lectures in departments of Asian art in universities and museums around the world. His book The Ajanta Caves is published by Thames & Hudson, London, and Harry N. Abrams, New York. His recent book The Art of India: Sculpture and Mural Painting of Ancient and Medieval Periods, in two volumes, has been published by Frontline magazine of The Hindu Group. His book Buddism: The Path of Compassion was published in 2018. The present feature is the result of extensive travel and research by Benoy Behl and his co-researcher, Sujata Chatterji, over the past eight years.