TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Five Faiths: Images of Deity in Textiles

Rejoice, by Christine Adams,
shown at "Roots of Racism: Ignorance and Fear" Art in Embassies Quilt Exhibit
in Islamabad, Pakistan, 2003
"Rejoice is one of several pieces from the "Celebration" series made in response to a compelling need to celebrate all life, all people. This quilt features raised hands in many skin tones. Ecumenism, diversity, the world’s potpourri of dissimilarities and contrasts, are all a part of my message for harmony.” Christine Adams

This is the first of several posts I am going to do on the five major world religions that have influenced, if not dictated, cultural behavior in the world over the past several centuries: Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Click on the Five Faiths label at the bottom of the article to see all the posts in this series on one page.

All five have interesting textile and costume traditions, impacting industry both within and outside of their belief systems. Those of us who are drawn to ethnic and tribal textiles must have a basic understanding of the religious beliefs of other cultures in order to appreciate a piece beyond technique and materials used. Obviously, there are many, many other religions beyond the "Big Five". These, however, have been the five which have impacted the world the most in terms of the populations they represent and political power. All five have been victims and victimizers throughout history as well as instruments of peace and liberation, whether on a personal or institutional level. I am no theologian nor an expert on these textiles, although I have had great interest in both religion and fiber traditions for many years.

For many years I had a gallery in Chicago that had textiles and artifacts representing the Big Five and I often thought about how ironic it was that these items could be displayed together in the same room, while their makers might not only refuse to be in the same space but might even want to kill each other. So, this is a small effort towards understanding and reconciliation. I believe firmly that racism and intolerance thrive in environments of isolation. The more one engages with the other, the more we find how much common ground we have, even as we celebrate our differences.

My springing board for these posts is a wonderful book by Huston Smith, World Religions. Huston Smith is a renowned theologian who has studied and taught about world religions for several decades. A Tibetan friend was sponsored by him and talked about his gentle spirit and kindness. The book reflects this statement as Huston Smith examines these and other religions through art with curiosity and joy . He states in the introduction:

"It is a book that seeks to embrace the world. That hope can only be approximated, of course. Arms are short and feet must be planted somewhere, so this book has a home. But it is a home whose doors swing in and out- in study and imaginings when not in overt travel. If it is possible to be homesick for the world, even places one has never been and knows one will never see, this book is the child of such homesickness. ... These thoughts about world understanding lead directly to the world's religions, for the surest way to the heart of a people is through their faith if it has not fossilized. ... Religion alive confronts the individual with the most momentous option life can present. It calls the soul to the highest adventure it can undertake, a projected journey across the jungles, peaks, and deserts of the human spirit. The call is to confront reality, to master the self." (pages 13 and 14) Smith's book is filled with art inspired by the religious traditions he examines. My focus will be on textiles and garments, although I will use him to remind me and guide me through the vast terrain of historical traditions I could tap into. I can only hope to introduce a few seeds here and there that might lead you, the reader, into further discoveries.

All that said, let's look at these big five and see if we can pinpoint a departure point starting with the concept of a deity or god.

Hinduism is the oldest of the five and the most foreign to me. Hinduism knows no boundaries and through the centuries has incorporated new myths and traditions into its own all-inclusive pantheon of rich stories. Huston Smith organizes this wealth into a heading of yoga, "a method of training designed to lead to integration or union. It includes physical exercises, but its ultimate goal is union with God." (page 26) And, who is God? God is abstract, life's creative power. God is understood through stories and myth, with thousands of characters that lead to a glimpse, but not a totality of this creative power. God is reached through knowledge, love, work and psychophysical exercises.

Although God is abstract, the creative power can be understood through the Hindu deities. Perhaps the closest deity Westerners could relate to in terms of the "Lord over all" would be Vishnu.

Vishnu, watercolor painting on cotton, Art of Legend India, $24

Here is the Wikipedia entry on Vishnu:

"Vishnu (IAST viṣṇu, Devanagari विष्णु), (honorific: Sri Vishnu) also known as Narayana, is supreme being or Ultimate Reality for Vaishnavas and a manifestation of Brahman in the Advaita or Smarta traditions of Hinduism. The Vishnu Sahasranama[1] describes Vishnu as the All-Pervading essence of all beings, the master of and beyond the past, present and future, the creator and destroyer of all existences, one who supports, sustains and governs the Universe and originates and develops all elements within. In the Puranas, Vishnu is described as being the color of clouds (dark-blue), four-armed, holding a lotus, mace, conch and chakra (wheel). Vishnu is also described in the Bhagavad Gita as having a 'Universal Form' (Vishvarupa) which is beyond the ordinary limits of human sense perception [2].

It is also within the Puranas that the information regarding Vishnu's avatars is given. Nine of these avatars, or 'incarnations' are described as having occurred in the past, with one still to happen at the end of Kali Yuga. The Bhagavad Gita mentions their purpose as being to rejuvenate Dharma[3] and vanquish negative forces. In virtually all the Sanatana Dharma traditions, Vishnu is worshipped, either directly or through avatars such as Rama, Krishna, Varaha and Narasimha. It should be however noted that although its is usual to speak of Vishnu as the source of the avataras, this is only one of the names of god in Vaishnavism who is also known as Narayana, Vasudeva and Krishna and behind each of those names is a divine figure with attributed supremacy in Vaishnavism.[4]"

Buddhism grew out of the teachings of one man in what is now Nepal, born around 563 B.C. Siddhartha, known to us now as The Buddha, was brought up in nobility in a Hindu world. He rejected his riches and set forward on a path to seek truth. Huston Smith tells the story:
"Buddhism begins with a man. In his later years, when India was afire with his message, people came to him asking what he was. "Are you a god? An angel? A saint?" they asked. "No." he replied. "Then what are you?" His answer was, "I am awake." (page 60) The chapter goes on to discuss Buddhist ideas of god, reincarnation and life after death. These concepts are difficult to understand as they introduce an organic measure of life and consciousness. No, there is no life after death, yet strands of consciousness survive and become a part of others. No, there is no god, yet the Buddha became regarded as a divine incarnation. Buddhism split into different schools of thought, and in some there is a heaven and hell. Tibetan Buddhists have a bunch of horrible hells to avoid, including Hungry Hell, which I never forgot. (Those in hungry hell have mouths and necks to small to allow food to enter. They have large, empty stomachs...)

So, although Buddhism may not overtly embrace the idea of a god, the Buddha himself has become the central deity in popular Buddhism. Tibetan thangka paintings are highly prized by collectors of Asian art. Tibet Collectibles has some good history on thangkas it offers for sale such as this one:

Buddha, circa 1890, $795

They state on their website:

"Tibetan Buddhist art, brightly colored and elaborately detailed, performs more than one function in Tibetan religious life. Devotional images are often used as the center point of rituals or ceremonies. Art is also used as a teaching tool by telling the story or the teachings of the Buddha or other deities (gods). Tibetan art, however, is mainly used as a tool for meditation. The meditator visualizes themselves as the image of the Buddha or deity in order to embody the qualities of the chosen subject.

Paintings of the Buddha or of deities, otherwise know as “thankas” are one of the most popular forms of Tibetan Buddhist art. The word thanka comes from the Tibetan words “than” and “ka”. “Than” means flat and “ka” is the word for painting. Monks traveling from monastery to monastery would take these flat paintings and roll them up for easy transport. Personal thankas, wallet size paintings, were also created for the traveling monk or religious devotee. Thanka art is explicitly religious and its two main functions are to teach disciples and to provide beauty which is believed to be a manifestation of the divine."

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all share the same God, having evolved out of one tradition. Their understandings of God, are common in that God is the creator, the parent figure, the almighty, and that there is only one God. They each have their own particular representations, however, for God. Neither Judaism nor Islam depict God through images. Christianity, differs from the two in its concept of a Trinity, three faces to one god.

Judaism, the oldest of the three, explains Huston Smith, "was lifted from obscurity to greatness through their passion for meaning." (page 180) He continues, "From the beginning to end, the Jewish quest for meaning was rooted in their understanding of the Supreme Being. Whatever a people's philosophy, it must take account of the Other. ... Where the Hebrews differed from their neighbors was in focusing the personal traits of the Other in a single, nature-transcending will. For other Mediterranean peoples, each major power of nature was a distinct deity; whereas in the Bible, nature in its entirety was created by, and under the sovereignty of the Lord of all being." Yahweh is the Hebrew name for God. Jewish art is replete with symbolic meaning. Here is a quilt with the Star of David:

Christianity came next in historical terms. With it, Jesus of Nazareth revolutionized the concept of God, introducing three characteristics to one Supreme Being. There is God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Father, or more inclusively, God the Creator, is the historical, absolute conscious presence who is all-powerful, all knowing, and all encompassing. Then, this God becomes incarnate and appears on earth as Jesus, the Christ, who was born and raised a Jew. Followers of Christ became known as Christians. After his death and resurrection, the Holy Spirit, arrived on Earth as the Spiritual manifestation of God. All three are the same, each with their own identity, like a towel folded into three parts.

Christianity has splintered into many denominations, some of which adhere to the Jewish and Islamic traditions of no art depicting God. There are three main divisions within Christianity: Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and Protestantism. Protestantism is subdivided into hundreds of splinter groups that are often in opposition to each other. All three, however, adhere to the belief that God is triune, three in one. The Roman Catholic Church, especially, has an immense historical tradition of religious art, and in the last Century, of folk art with religious themes. The Trinity is often depicted as a triangle, but each also has an image often associated with its persona. God the Creator often is shown as an old white man with a beard, Jesus on the cross, and the Holy Spirit as a dove. This painting shows all three divine manifestations of God together:

Huston Smith begins speaking about Islam with the following paragraph:
"With a few striking exceptions that will be noted, the basic theological concepts of Islam are virtually identical with those of Judaism and Christianity, its forerunners. We shall confine our attention in this section to four that are the most important: God, Creation, the Human Self, and the Day of Judgment. ... As in other historical religions, everything in Islam centers on its religious Ultimate, God. God is immaterial and therefore invisible." (page 157) God is invoked through 99 names. Art cannot depict images of people or animals for fear of idolatry, so words, geometric form and floral arrangements lead the devout towards God.

Perhaps the most symbolic textile in Islamic art relevant to this article would be the Prayer Rug. Having to pray five times a day can be an inconvenience in terms of finding a clean space. So, many devout Muslims will carry their personal prayer rugs with them. Small and portable, they can roll them out when needed and keep themselves clean. A prayer rug is normally depicted with a doorway, window, or building that has a definite point. This point should be directed towards Mecca. It is useful to have direction on the rug so that the feet never touch the area where the hands and head use the rug. This beautiful Turkish prayer rug was featured in an article on the blog, Coffee and Carpets:

All five religions have exquisite textile and fiber traditions. We will look at more of them in future articles. But, to me, I think the most interesting common thread through all of these paths is that they teach the abandonment of self as a way to enlightenment or to find communion with God. They all stress the importance of loving the neighbor and working towards peace. Wouldn't it be something if all the adherents to these religions really followed these precepts? I think the world would be a different place!

1 comment:

  1. "Wouldn't it be something if all the adherents to these religions really followed these precepts?"

    What a different world we would live in if this were so...


“Sing like no one's listening, love like you've never been hurt, dance like nobody's watching, and live like it's heaven on earth.”

“Whatever you say, say it with conviction.”

(Both by the master, Mark Twain)

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