Xuanzang and the Silk Road

November 13, 2010

The Director’s office sees all kinds of visitors.  From curators and researchers to  board members and potential donors, there is a diversity of interests and topics that get addressed over light cocktails and finger foods.  For this reason we have been trying to create a focal point in the room that relates to a particularly salient exhibit or topic of interest that helps breaks the ice about what the museum is working on at any given time.  For a while this was a painting called The Excavation at the Temple Court in Nippur by Osman Hamdi Bey.  It is based on a photograph by John Henry Haynes and is a stunning piece of artwork.  When our recent exhibit “Archaeologists and Travelers in Ottoman Lands” was installed, the painting was taken down to be included in the exhibit.  This left a space on the Director’s wall to be filled.  What to choose? With our blockbuster exhibit “Secrets of the Silk Road” on the horizon something related to the Silk Road was a natural fit. Sifting through the collection trying to land on an object was a rather difficult task given space and environment issues.

In the end, we decided on something that was actually already on display, a Japanese painting depicting an Indian Buddhist text translated by a Chinese monk.  What better way to illustrate the cultural interactions along the Silk Road than with an object that could only have come about by it’s existence?

It’s important to remember that the Silk Road wasn’t just about the trading of silks, spices, precious gems, and other material  goods, it was also about the exchange and dissemination of different ideas.  Buddhism was one set of ideas that certainly benefited from this exchange.  Various Buddhist precepts,  available only in India in the 7th century, made their way along the road eventually finding their way into  monasteries in China and  Buddhist temples in Japan.   The painting now hanging in the Director’s office was collected in such a temple around the end of the 19th century yet it depicts the MahaPrajnaparamita, a text that originates in India around the 1rst century BCE.  So how did an idea from India end up on the wall of a Japanese temple some 2000 years later?  The answer is one worth spending a little time on.  For now,  take a look at a photo of the painting and see if anything strikes you about it.  I’ll be back with a series of future posts that explore some of the iconography and history of the painting and how it relates to the Silk Road.