The Rubin Museum of Art has been intriguing enough to host a remarkable exhibition entitled Embodying the Holy: Icons in Eastern Orthodox Christianity and Tibetan Buddhism. It tries to shed some light on parallels between the Eastern Orthodox Christian and Tibetan Buddhist sacred traditions in function, subject matter, composition, and story telling strategies. Pairing some 63 icons from important private collections and the Museum of Russian Icons (Clinton, Massachusetts) with 26 from the Rubin Museum of Art and other collections, the authors wanted to intrigue our skepticism and see whether orthodox icon paintings, iconostases, and crucifixes or Buddhist thangkas (Tibetan silk paintings with embroidery depicting a Buddhist deity), and reliquaries are essentially serving the same functionality. The possibility of salvation, battles of good vs. evil, notion of heaven and hell are the concepts introduced by these works of art from 2 very remote and separate regions of the world.
Although unconvinced in the beginning, I began to see some symmetries between the two realms of depicting the Holy. Exhibition shows us the different notions of compassion manifested in the iconography of Mary and Jesus and that of Tara, the goddess of Tibet and the feminine embodiment of compassion. Parallels are also seen in the depiction of ‘’family trees’’, such as Christianity’s Tree of Jesse and Buddhism’s diagrammatic charting of the deities and teachers connected to particular historic figures.
An 18th century Byzantine icon from Greek Asia Minor depicting Christ adorned in flowing red robe, rising from the tomb amid fields like blue and green waves is exhibited nearby 19th century Tibetan thangka in which the life stories of the Buda are depicted in colored profusion. A considerable number of works on view, show us the canonic representations of saints and teachers from the Russian or Greek Orthodox Church. This impressive collection is juxtaposed to an impressive collection of images of Tibetan lamas, ascetics and yogis represented in a group of 18th century paintings or sacred statues.
The exhibit tries to explore for the first time, how two very different religious traditions have used very analogous visual language and iconography to express fundamental religious narratives. The symmetry of both Buddhism and eastern Orthodox Christianity translate their written and oral traditions into symbolic imagery for the same sole purpose to convey the religious message. Viewed through Peirce’s sign typology, such imagery (Tibetan or Christian Orthodox) is, in fact, based on a convention that personifies iconic similarity no matter how distant and isolated these two realms of religious thought might be.