You may not have a penchant for sacred books, but you might change your mind after seeing Illuminated: The Art of Sacred Books, on display at the Johnson Museum till December 23. The exhibit goes beyond the literal text and shows the impressive culture of creating books.
The exhibit, organized by the Rubin Museum of Art, was co-curated by Elena Pakhoutova, associate curator at the Rubin Museum, and Agnieszka Helman-Wazny, a former visiting scholar at Cornell. The exhibition includes works owned by and loaned to the Johnson Museum and the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections at Kroch Library. Ellen Avril, Chief Curator and Curator of Asian Art, took me on a tour of the exhibit.
Illuminated is about the material culture of constructing and decorating sacred, religious books. There are covers of texts that are painted with gold, adorned with signet rings, earrings and necklaces, and inlaid with glass and stone. The intricate ornamentation and craftsmanship are seen as signs of devotion in many religions, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Christianity and Islam, which is why these books are also valued as objects of art.
“By featuring the material splendor of books, the exhibition calls attention to the materials, formats, techniques and people who commissioned, made, and treasured these books,” Avril explained.
One of the most interesting pieces is mysteriously shrouded by a black cloth. Underneath the cloth and beneath the glass is a page from the chapter on Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara in The Lotus Sutra. When the cloth is pulled away, one can get a quick glimpse at the readily fading text, which was written in human blood. The use of blood may seem odd as Avalokiteshvara is supposed to embody the compassion of all Buddhas.
“It could be an extreme form of devotion; in fact, in Buddhist traditions, human blood, especially that of a revered master, was sometimes added to ink as an extra expression of devotion and to increase the effectiveness of the sacred text,”Avril said. But writing with human blood isn’t as bizarre as it sounds. Many people get Bible verses tattooed on their lower back, for example.
Another notable piece, and one of Avril’s favorites, is a folio from the mid-9th to mid-10th century that uses gold and silver on indigo-dyed vellum (paper hadn’t gone mainstream in Tunisia yet). It is a luxury manuscript, which is probably why it is in such great condition, in addition to the use of parchment made from a whole animal skin. Most of the colors are still bright and rich and the parchment has held together quite well for 1,000 years of wear.
When you walk in the exhibit in Bartels Gallery at the Johnson Museum, you will be in awe. The show leaves viewers with tremendous respect for the works by demystifiying the production of sacred books. An extremely intricate Tibetan woodblock relief on display was used to print a single page of text in The White Beril.
“Visitors will find a visual feast in the exhibition’s focus on lavish materials and the extraordinary efforts it took to make the most exquisite sacred books, no matter what their level of background knowledge might be,” Avril said. “The cross-cultural perspective also makes it more likely that visitors will find some familiar aspect of the exhibition, whether they see books that relate to their own religious or cultural backgrounds, or whether they simply find connections to their own appreciation of books and beautiful objects.”
Even if you are not interested in Asian art or sacred texts, I recommend checking out the exhibit. Many of the pieces are extremely rare and honestly, they are really cool looking. My personal favorite is a gold ink painting of Guanyin Bodhisattva, made by Miss Qiu, daughter of the famous Chinese painter, Qiu Ying. You’d never guess it’s 500 years old. Illuminated: The Art of Sacred Books will be on display till December 23. This Saturday, there will be an afternoon of performances and gallery tours at the Johnson Museum in celebration of the exhibit.