The Met to present exhibition on Buddhist art with major loans from India

Stupa panel with the nagaraja Mucalinda protecting the Buddha (detail). Dhulikatta stupa, Telangana, India. Early Satavahana, 1st century BCE. Limestone. Archaeology Museum, Karimnagar, Government of Telangana. Photo by Thierry Ollivier, courtesy The Met.

Opening at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on July 21, 2023, the exhibition Tree and Serpent: Early Buddhist Art in India, 200 BCE–400 CE aims to shed light on how the religious landscape of ancient India was transformed by the Buddhist presence.

Featuring more than 125 objects, including major loans from India, the exhibition will consist of stone sculptures associated with the adornment of the stupa—the monumental dome structures that housed the Buddha relics—as well as metalwork, ivory, ceramics, paintings, and jewelry, a May 8, 2023 press release from The Met said.

A series of evocative and interlocking themes will reveal both the pre-Buddhist origins of figurative sculpture in India and the early narrative tradition that was central to this formative moment in early Indian art.

The premier New York City museum will house a series of “spectacular sculptural masterpieces from southern India that will be exhibited to the public for the first time, including newly discovered works of art from ancient monastic sites in the Deccank,” The Met noted.

“Buddhism inspired an extraordinarily innovative and beautiful flowering of art in ancient India. It is a tremendous honor to present this stunning exhibition—and to introduce new discoveries from this pivotal moment in the history of art—to our global audience,” Max Hollein, the Marina Kellen French Director of The Met, is quoted saying in the press release.

Hollein expressed “special thanks” to the Government of India and the six state governments in India, “who have all been generous lenders to this pioneering exhibition, along with institutions in Europe and the United States.”

Govind Mohan, secretary, Ministry of Culture, Government of India, said, “It gives me immense pleasure to learn that this international exhibition is being organized by The Met, in joint collaboration with a consortium of Indian museums to enhance cultural exchange between India and the United States of America.”

Wishing the exhibition all success, Mohan added, “The exhibition will most definitely reinvigorate interest in India’s cultural heritage through its artefact wealth and will lead to deeper understanding of cultural diversities of two nations and appreciation among the people.”

The Consul General of India, New York, Randhir Jaiswal said the exhibition took on added importance coming as it does when   India celebrates 75 years of its independence, ‘Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav.’

According to John Guy, the Florence and Herbert Irving Curator of South and Southeast Asian Art at The Met, the Buddhist exhibition presents the story of the origins of Buddhist art through the lens of newly discovered masterpieces from early India.

“It showcases the beginnings of Buddhist art in southern India and presents it in a wider landscape of early Buddhist devotional practice, centered on honoring the Buddha and his relics,” Guy said.

Buddhist monasteries were places for meditation but were also, on occasions, places for noisy festivals, the air heavy with the fragrance of fresh flowers and perfumes, Guy noted, adding, “This is an exhibition that celebrates the senses, just as Buddhist worship does.”

The exhibit is thematically organized exploring the pre-Buddhist nature cults of India that influenced early Buddhist art, the role of stupas and relic worship, the role of patrons, and the influence of India’s global position, including its international trade with the Roman world.

Highlights include sublimely beautiful renderings of stupas, sections of ceremonial gateways, and processional railings protected by awesome rearing cobras (nagas). Housed within are the precious relics marking the Buddha’s presence, honored through these sculptural adornments—masterpieces of early Buddhist art.

An international symposium is scheduled at The Met’s Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium on September 29 and 30, 2023.

The exhibition will be featured on The Met website as well as on social media using the hashtag #TreeandSerpent.



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