April 17, 2015

Art Institute finds common ground in religious prints

The development of the medium of print in both the East and the West is inextricably tied to the dissemination of religious ideas. A comparative exploration of religious prints in Japan and in Western Europe, Spreading Devotion, recently opened at the Art Institute of Chicago. The exhibit engages the material by closely juxtaposing Buddhist and Christian texts and images.

Most of the exhibition consists of didactic images that could be understood by both the educated classes and the illiterate laity. European prints often depict events or personages that are easily identifiable, even by those Christians who are unfamiliar with scripture. The multiple prints of Christ on the cross, the principal image of the Christian faith, demonstrate the centrality of Christ’s sacrifice for the sins of humankind. Japanese prints, in contrast, usually privilege the depiction of deities over events. One of the largest pieces at the gallery was a hand-colored woodblock-printed set of twelve printed devas, divine guardians of Indian Hindu origin. These icons, used during a court ritual, demonstrate the syncretism that constitutes Japanese faith in the early 15th century.

Pilgrimage is a theme central to religion, especially in medieval times, and these pious acts of devotion feature heavily in the prints curated for this exhibition. Pilgrimage artifacts from Japan and Western Europe demonstrate the convergence of Buddhist and Christian social histories despite their ideological differences. In both regions, collecting material objects along pilgrim routes is common practice. Spreading Devotion includes a charm from the Tanigumisan Kegonji Temple in the Gifu Prefecture, the final destination on a pilgrimage route of 33 temples in Western Japan. The woodblock print from the year 1684 is evidence demonstrating the practice of charm collection at each temple along a pilgrimage route, each charm being a printed image of each of the 33 manifestations of Kannon, the bodhisattva of compassion. The European analog for this practice is exemplified by a pilgrim badge from the Andechs monastery outside of Munich, which is covered in images of relics that the monastery owns.

Although it is not a print, such devotional badges were often sewn into religious manuscripts, thereby evoking in the devotee sentiments of awe and reverence to that of Japanese pilgrims collecting printed images of deities. The medieval preponderance on pilgrimage culminates in this gallery in illustrations of the arduous journey that the pilgrim undertakes. William Blake’s line engraving of the pilgrims of Chaucer’s canonical Canterbury Tales depicts the imaginative hold that the theme of the journey has on the pious, even in Victorian England. In the gallery, one also finds a book with multiple woodcut prints from the Netherlands in the year 1486. The longest foldout in the book comprises a map that depicts the pilgrimage route from Venice to Jerusalem, allowing a fictive pilgrimage to be made in the comfort of one’s own home. This cartographical feat indicates yet again the social and cultural significance of pilgrimage.

A display case at the end of the gallery holds two of the oldest printed materials in the exhibition, both of which are scriptural texts. A leaf from the Gutenberg Bible, the first book printed in Europe using movable type in the year 1455, is juxtaposed alongside a woodblock-printed konpon darani text, a prayer taken from a Buddhist sutra from the late eighth century. It is noteworthy that the latter is displayed alongside a miniature wooden pagoda-shaped reliquary that once held the rolled-up darani prayer. This work was part of a set called the Hyakumantō, one million pagodas that are believed to be commissioned by the empress as a prayer for peace after a tumultuous uprising in 764. These two documents, while having served vastly different purposes, sought to render accessible scriptural texts that once lay in the intellectual monopoly of the clerical or priestly class.

Despite the wide-ranging geographical locales and time periods in which the prints curated were made, Spreading Devotion succeeded in uniting print material that is representative of the practices of different faiths. This comparative exploration of the social histories of Japan and Western Europe documents the convergence of cultural practice and religious ideology, and demonstrates the indispensable role of art in acts of devotion and piety.

Spreading Devotion runs from April 4, 2015 to June 21, 2015 at Gallery 107 at the Art Institute of Chicago, which is open from 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day.