Seeing the Divine in Hindu Art


Hinduism, one of the great religions of the world, has a long and rich history of depicting the divine in art. Originating in India in remote antiquity, it is a polytheistic system with a myriad of gods and goddesses. The challenge for artists was not a shortage of subject matter, but rather how to give form to beings that by their very natures are formless. Relying mainly on sacred religious texts wherein the exploits of the gods and goddesses are told and retold, certain tales and episodes became favorites for illustration, and standard iconographies were established for specific deities. These iconographies include certain attributes, body postures, hand gestures, hair styles, colors, animal associations, and the like. Most of these elements are imbued with deep religious symbolism. A visual vocabulary was thus built up, and once established, became solidified. This visual library has since remained fairly unchanged with the passage of time.

From its beginnings Hindu art was created primarily to aid devotees in focusing their worship. Monumental stone statues or relief sculptures were positioned in or on temples, and large bronze cult statues were set up for public worship. Innumerable smaller figurines have been made for installation in household shrines so that devotees may offer personal devotion. Paintings, tapestries, ritual objects, theatrical masks, and other items bearing images of  deities have been created in various media, all forming part of a dense pictorial encyclopedia used to illustrate divine subject matter. This rich corpus of imagery provides instruction, support, and inspiration for millions of devout Hindu believers.

The exhibition features some of the most important deities of the Hindu pantheon. Vishnu and his ten avatars, especially Krishna, figure prominently. Shiva, another male god of prime importance, is featured, as is his son, the much  loved elephant-headed Ganesha. The well-known goddesses Lakshmi, Parvati, Durga, Kali, and Sarasvati are represented. Together with these major gods and goddesses, a selection of lesser-known male and female deities is also  included. The artworks span the ages, from the eighth or ninth century to the present. Most were made in India, though a few originate in neighboring countries of south or southeast Asia. Artworks created in time-honored classic  styles, honed through centuries of standardization, are displayed alongside items that exhibit regional stylizations, charming folk-style characteristics, or even modern artistic license. Taken as a whole, the exhibition offers viewers an introduction to the incredibly fertile and varied visual landscape of Hindu divinity.

Vishnu
The Avatars of Vishnu
Other Male Gods
Shiva
Ganesha
Lakshmi
Parvati
Durga
Kali
Other Female Goddesses

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"I still remember the feeling of awe and disbelief when I was alone and walked in the room with those casts." --Ruth Tofle, chair of architecture, winner of the 2013 distinguished faculty award from the MU Alumni Association