Multiplier effect: Meditations on the Buddha


Before we dive into the art, a quick linguistics lesson (come on, you know you want one): Languages tend to simplify over time. According to Guy Deutscher, author of The Unfolding of Language, plain old laziness is why many languages lose grammatical specificity as they evolve. But, Deutscher argues, even as declensions decline and genders neutralize, the invention of new words and metaphors perpetually adds creative zest to verbal expression.

I wondered if a similar rule might apply to iconography as I meandered among the Buddhas populating the exhibition "Keeper of the Flame: Art of Sri Lanka," currently on view at the University of Virginia Art Museum. The seated and standing figures, arranged chronologically from the Anuradhapura Period (c. 432-993 A.D.) through the Kandyan Period (18th century A.D.), reveal how the same icon and its associated symbols evolved stylistically in one area of South Asia.

If that makes "Keeper of the Flame" sound like a show only a bean counter would love, well, you've been warned. In fact, if you're not a Buddhist or an art historian, you may find the repetitive nature of the exhibition a little ho-hum. Or meditative, depending on your outlook.

Produced by artists within the Theravada school of Buddhism, which advocates the renunciation of worldly comforts in favor of monastic practice, the mostly cast bronze figures serve to focus devotees' attention upon the enlightened example of the Buddha's life. Each represents– however subtly– the 32 physical marks indicating the Buddha as the "Universal Man" (e.g., an upright stance, and a tuft of hair between the eyebrows), plus each incorporates spiritually significant clothing and hand gestures ("mudras").

The earliest figures in the exhibition are small and well proportioned, with unexaggerated features. Particularly refined is the "Seated Buddha on Lotus Petal," which shows traces of having once borne a coat of red paint (nearly all the figures, save the ones plated in gold, were originally painted).

By the "Divided Kingdoms" period (1232-1597 A.D.), however, aesthetic conventions, such as exaggeratedly large hands and earlobes, as well as block-like feet, have become standard iconographic elements. Still later images reveal a trend emphasizing disproportionately broad shoulders and robes rippling with stylized pleats.

Dolomite carvings (including a urinal stone!), as well as the occasional Hindu deity (presented for stylistic reference), offer a break from the parade of Buddhas. Primarily though, "Keeper of the Flame" offers a meditative lesson in the evolution of an icon.

"Keeper of the Flame: Art of Sri Lanka" is on display at the University of Virginia Art Museum through March 19. 155 Rugby Road. 924-3592.