Byzantine cultural glory owes a lot to Buddhist art: Indian researcher

Daily India Mail, November 13, 2014

New Delhi : The famed Byzantine Empire that celebrated classical European culture for more than a millennium from the 4th Century CE has “actually shared close relations” with Buddhism, recent research has revealed.

Rock arts, floral scrolls, architecture, iconography, hand gestures and themes have a lot in common between the Istanbul-headquartered Christianised Roman Empire and those found in the Occident where Gautama Buddha left a legacy that metamorphosed into a religion after the sage’s death in 5th Century BCE, according to a presentation made at the Indian Art History Congress (IAHC) here.

Movements of artists between Byzantine Empire and India facilitated this spread of Buddhist art to places as far as the Mediterranean Coast in the West, said Prof Rajaram Sharma in his talk at the three-day event organised by National Museum (NM) in association with the National Museum Institute.

“India always remained in touch with the West over centuries through land and sea — through commerce and various classes of travellers besides diplomatic and religious envoys,” the Bhopal-based scholar said in his paper ‘The Presence of Buddhist Concepts of Art in the Christianized Roman Empire & Vice Versa’ at one of the 32 sessions of the November 11-13 IAHC which attended by nearly 200 delegates.

The Greeks still have so much adoration for India even as its academics are in a dilemma over conceding the degree of Occidental influence in their culture which is widely believed to be structured on Orthodox Christianity, said 71-year-old Prof Sharma, who has been researching on the subject since 1977.

For instance, Byzantinologist Lady Tamara Talbot Rice refers to a room completely decorated with Indian Style in the Great Palace of Constantinople (which fell to Ottoman Turks in 1453), the speaker told delegates at the 23rd IAHC which concluded today.

Throwing more light on his comparative study of art, he said the hills in the background of Byzantine miniatures, mosaics and murals are much like Indian sculptures and paintings. The Byzantine rocks in 6th-century St Vitale mosaics at Ravenna in Italy are characteristic of the aesthetics seen in Ajanta Caves of Maharashtra in western India.

If floral scrolls (on stones) are found in 5th-century Buddhist art at Sarnath and Mathura in northern India, they are strikingly similar to the ivory work in the well-known Episcopal chair of Archbishop Maximianus Ravenna (CE 546-556). Equally interestingly, the dwellings with barrel-vaulted roof seen in Byzantine murals is typical of Buddhist art exemplified, say, in the murals of Ajanta, where gigantic forms of horse-shoe windows cut in the facades of the caves.

If ‘Our Lady of Vladimir’ is the icon of Virgin Mary, its expression of “having retired from the world”, the modelling of the face and the decorative body parts are very close to those of the image of Bodhisattva Padmapani at Ajanta.

Mudras such as ‘Abhaya’, ‘Kartari’ and ‘Anjali’ that are well discussed in Indian iconography find interesting parallels in Byzantine hand gestures like Reassurance, Benedicto Latina and Benedicto Graeca.

As for ideological parallels, ‘The Mother dedicating her son to Asceticism’ is a common theme that has inspired both Byzantine and Indian artists.

Overall, “one might wonder if future studies unveil some artists who might have worked for both Indian and Byzantine provinces,” said Prof Sharma, who runs the 2012-founded Sapta-Varni Art & Literature Centre in the Madhya Pradesh capital. “The matter merits further investigations from the Indian point of view.”



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