Nine deities

Nine deities sit on their characteristic animals or thrones within arched niches. Only a few, such as Surya, the sun god, at the far left, can be positively identified. Many similar stone representations of this set of nine deities are known from ancient Angkor. Scholars have long debated exactly whom they depict. There is a Hindu tradition of nine planetary deities, each associated with a celestial body—such as the sun, Venus, or a comet—known to ancient astronomers, and these nine are sometimes represented together in Indian sculpture. It is likely that similar depictions of nine deities from Cambodia represent the same set of nine celestial bodies. It is not certain where and how such stone groupings of nine deities were displayed in temples.

The Buddha Amitabha with the eight great bodhisattvas

Here Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light, is surrounded by the Eight Great Bodhisattvas. Amitabha is one of the most compassionate figures in the Buddhist pantheon and a central figure of Pure Land Buddhism, which proliferated in East Asia, including Vietnam, China, Korea, and Japan. Amitabha promised all believers rebirth in the Pure Land, where souls are reborn rid of all impurities.

The accompanying eight bodhisattvas are (on the right, from bottom to top) Avalokiteshvara, Manjushri, Maitreya, and Vajrapani, and (on the left, from bottom to top) Mahasthamaprapta, Samantabhadra, Kshitigarbha, and Sarvanivarana Vishkambhin. The link between Amitabha and the eight bodhisattvas is mentioned in a Korean version of the Eight Great Bodhisattvas Mandala Sutra, in the “Practices” chapter. Many scholars believe that the pairing of Amitabha with these eight bodhisattvas is unique to Korea.

Typical of late Goryeo Buddhist paintings, the figures in this painting are adorned with sumptuous garments decorated with delicate gold patterns, translucent nimbuses, and gilded skin tones. The luxurious aesthetics evident in this painting were prevalent during the Goryeo dynasty.

The Hindu deities Shiva and Parvati combined as Ardhanarishvara

Indian artists and philosophers sometimes sought ways to show the combination—the reintegration—of opposites like male and female. Here, Shiva and his wife are shown combined in a single figure divided vertically. The headdress has contrasting halves, the figure has one male breast and one female one, and at the figure’s feet are two different animal mounts, Shiva’s bull (with its head broken off) and Parvati’s lion.

A seated woman symbolizing a musical mode (Vihag Ragaputra)

This painting represents a musical mode (raga). The sets to which such works belonged were known as “ragamalas” (garlands of musical modes). In them, various modes of classical Indian music were idealized as human figures engaged in activities or placed in settings that evoked the specific emotions, moods, and times of day associated with the raga. In the various classification systems used in South Asia, major musical modes were personified as men or gods, while other modes were personified as their wives, sons, and, infrequently, daughters.

An inscription above the painting identifies this musical mode as Vihag Ragaputra (son of a male raga). In some instances such as this one, male musical modes were visualized as women. This seated woman does not correspond to other known images of Vihag, which typically depict the musical mode as a man and in different settings. The nighttime Vihag raga is here depicted at night, as indicated by the silver moon and the resting birds. The tiger skin upon which the woman sits is usually associated with ascetics. Her jewelry may indicate her transformation, due to heartache, from a beautiful young woman into an ascetic figure. The difficulty in determining her exact identity indicates both the lack of a clearly defined system for illustrating ragamala texts in South Asia and the existence of many regional variations.

Bird with long tail feathers

Artists of the Kano school drew inspiration for subjects like this one from imported Chinese paintings. Perched atop a gnarled camellia tree branch, a long-tailed bird turns to look up to its right. This domesticated songbird, a kind of magpie, is called “ribbons” in Chinese, a reference to tail feathers that resemble the silk ribbons of official seals or medals in China. In contrast to the branch, which is rendered in ink with minute dots suggesting lichen, the bird and flowers are painted with rich mineral colors and a profusion of detail. Artists working for China’s imperial court used this style to mimic the forms of nature in as realistic a manner as possible: here, a sense of the bird’s sleek, plump form; the leaves’ smooth, curving shape; and the flowers’ rippled petals and stiff, upright stamen.

Quran manuscript

The Quran first began to be revealed through the angel Jibril (Gabriel) to Prophet Muhammad during one of his meditative retreats inside the Cave of Hira near Mecca. Prophet Muhammad memorized these words and passed them on orally. Following his death in 632, the revelations continued to be preserved orally until a couple of decades later, when they were compiled to form the Holy Quran, the most revered text of the Muslim faith. The Quran is believed to be miraculous and is characterized by the principle of inimitability; that is, no human can match its language and beauty. The Quran contains 114 chapters, which, except for the opening chapter, are organized according to length from the longest to the shortest.

The Quran (in Arabic, “recitation”) is read and recited by Muslims as part of devotional practice. Since the Quran was revealed to Prophet Muhammad in Arabic, it is highly encouraged to read and recite the Quran in its orginal language. Thus, the Arabic script (read from right to left) can be seen in places as diverse as North Africa, Spain, and China.Religious devotion is expressed also in copying the Quran, and manuscripts are prepared with great attention to accuracy They are often elaborately decorated with illuminated opening pages and chapter headings, and the text is written in fine calligraphy.

Catching the Ox

With all his strength, a herder boy grasps the horns of a massive ox. In an attempt to mount the beast, the boy steps on the ox’s neck to hold its head to the ground. The painting expresses the Zen message that enlightenment is attained through struggle. Here, the animal represents the unenlightened state, in which the mind rampages like an unruly ox. Zen meditation would catch the ox of the mind by means of religious discipline.

Paintings known as the “Ten Ox Pictures” were popular and inspirational teaching materials. This painting illustrates the fourth of the ten stages of attaining enlightenment. Sekkyakushi, a Zen monk, was a pioneer of Zen ink painting.

The Stone Table Garden

The artist who painted this scroll was Sun Kehong, a very wealthy and generous resident of the city of Huating, in what is now Shanghai. The scroll was painted for Lu Yashan, another famous Huating resident, and depicts Lu’s garden, which was called the “Stone Table Garden” after a large stone table placed within one of its bamboo groves. This section of the scroll shows Lu watching a young boy watering potted plants. The Stone Table Garden is an ambitious work that took considerable time, so it is likely that Lu produced it for an important occasion. The presence of a crane, traditionally a symbol of immortality, may indicate that this was a birthday gift. Since the painting was created by one member of the elite (whose social status indicates that he would have been an amateur artist) as a gift to another, it is doubtful that the artist was paid.

Daoist ceremonial robe

Robes like this were worn by Daoist priests during rituals and ceremonies. Daoism developed in China more than 2,000 years ago as a religion that places humans in both natural and divine worlds.

The back of the robe, shown here, is embroidered with cosmic diagrams. The large disk (center) depicts a palace surrounded by the lunar houses of Chinese astronomy. Above this, three disks represent heavens. To the left of these disks is the sun with a three-legged bird, and to the right is the moon, with a hare making the elixir of immortality. Below the central disk are symbols of the five sacred peaks of China. The remainder of the surface of this robe is decorated with white cranes and phoenixes with long tails, both of which served as mounts for Daoist deities. The lingzhi fungus of immortality and cloud formations enclose the symbolic implements of the Eight Daoist Immortals—fan, sword and flywhisk, crutch, basket, flute, lotus, fish drum, and a pair of boards for keeping time. Among the waves at the bottom are sacred animals, including deer, crane, tortoise, snake (the ancient guardian deity of the north), monster fish, and dragons. Floating on the waves are some of the Eight Precious Jewels.