Comparative Hell: Arts of Asian Underworlds
On ViewAsia Society Museum
Comparative Hell: Arts of Asian Underworlds
February 28–May 7, 2023
In an age when few dread eternal damnation and the torments of hell no longer function as a deterrent to bad behavior, a stunning exhibition at the Asia Society Museum expands our knowledge of this infernal nether region. Westerners who imagine hell through Dante’s Inferno, or Jonathan Edwards’s fiery 1741 sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” may be surprised to learn that portrayals of hell are found in the Asian religious traditions of Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and Islam. A small painting from a manuscript The Prophet Muhammad at the Gates of Hell (1465) shows the Prophet sitting on al-Buraq, his human-headed steed. Muhammad visited both heaven and hell, and here we see him at the gates of hell, which open onto a wall of flames. Contemporary secularism has led many to dismiss hell as part of an internal cosmos, a timeless psychic realm, and a spiritual reality. This Asia Society exhibition will perhaps make the viewer realize that thousands of years of human history—both Eastern and Western—tell a different story. Perhaps even the most strident scientific rationalist will awaken after death shocked to face a psychopomp like an Anubis or Datsueba the Hag of Hell, glimpsed several times in this exhibition.
The exhibition opens with Bhavachakra (Wheel of Life) (Tibet, 18th century), a personification of samsara, the cycles of rebirth. The work’s lower portion shows Yama Dharmaraja, the Lord of the Dead, holding a mirror which reflects the actions of the dead; judgment and the punishment for transgressions will be a recurring theme in the exhibition. Here, the condemned are boiled in cauldrons, and in one lively sequence demons with ox carts drive plows over their tongues. A memorable Jain work, Adhai-dvipa: The Two and a Half Continents, the Universe in the Shape of a Person (Cosmic Mann, Lokapurusha), and the Seven Levels of Hell (Samvat, 1670/1613), adds to the catalog of tortures: the damned may be impaled on spears or tridents, dismembered with axes, and for good measure trampled by elephants. The depiction of the Jain Cosmic Man, along with the side panel depicting hell, shows the dimensions of the tradition’s cosmology. Both naked and white-clad Jain renunciates had powerful images to keep them in line, and we see many gory examples in this exhibition, including an image of a man whose arm is bitten off by a tiger!
Battle of Karbala (Qajar period, late nineteenth, early twentieth century) is an Islamic pictorial tour de force, made for storytelling (Pardeh-Khani) in Iran’s coffeehouses and streets. The central scene depicts Abu al-Fadl (647-680) on a white horse, cleaving an enemy soldier with a large, curved saber. Each section surrounding the main figure is divided into squares devoted to a complex narrative. Mini histories show veiled pious women, haloed martyred saints, and a man being fed into the jaws of a giant monster. This is dramatic storytelling at its best! Two diagrammatic architectural drawings: The Kingdom of Yama (Nepal, ca. 1900), and The Court of Yama, God of Death (India, ca. 1800) divide hell into four gated quadrants. We see flogging, vultures devouring flesh, and the damned being boiled alive.
On the floor above, we get a respite from Judgment and Punishment with the Salvation section. The Bodhisattva Yinlu “Who Guides the Souls” (China, tenth century) is a sublime work borrowed from the Musée national des arts asiatiques-Guimet which depicts the psychopomp as a heavenly figure clad in sandals resting on clouds. Family members commissioned portraits of their deceased relatives portrayed wearing funerary whites honoring the Bodhisattva. In these, art patronage and a hope for gaining salvation are united. Chinese art patronage takes on the role of the plenary indulgences formerly found in the Catholic world. The celestial palaces afloat at the top of the painting reinforce the idea of salvation for the wealthy. These votive portraits were purchased or commissioned at the important temple complex at Dunhuang, in northwestern China.
Following on the theme of salvation, perhaps the most sincerely felt contribution from the contemporary section of the exhibition is Spirit Canopy (2021) by the Iranian-born artist Afruz Amighi. The artist mines her Zoroastrian heritage, considered to be older than the Abrahamic religions, and rooted in a dualistic cosmology of good versus evil. In the Zoroastrian tradition, the departed are fed until they can leave earth to begin their ascent. Here, using lacey cutwork canopies and chains, the artist forms gateways to allow tethered souls to untether themselves and ascend to the next realm. Amighi’s work is the sole representation of the Zoroastrian afterlife found in this exhibition, and it stood out because it felt rooted in a living religious tradition and had a numinous charge.
This well-researched exhibition was curated by Dr. Adriana Proser, the Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Quincy Scott Curator of Asian Art at The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, with Asia Society curator Laura Weinstein. An illustrated catalogue with contributions by curator and editor Adriana Proser and the scholars Geok Yian Goh, Phyllis Granoff, Christiane Gruber, Michelle Yun Mapplethorpe, and D. Max Moerman, is a wonderful resource and well worth the price.