HE LIVED IN A DIVERSE AND MULTICULTURAL MILIEU
only monotheistic religions that cannot accept any variations on or rivals to their unique divinity, which is why they have such a dismal record of intolerance and bigotry. Most of the world’s other religions are prepared to accept there are other gods beside those they worship or to identify their gods with those of new people they encounter.
Thus Yu Hong seems to have adopted some kind of fusion of the Zoroastrian religion of the Persians and Sogdians, probably assimilated in his childhood, with the Buddhism he would have encountered on his travels and that widely was practised around him. Although the Zoroastrians are often considered proto-monotheistic, they believed the world was the scene of a struggle between a beneficent deity, Ahura Mazda, god of light, and the evil Ahriman, demon of darkness. This dualism had a powerful influence farther west as well, giving rise to the Manichean heresy in the early Christian Church, later revived in the medieval beliefs of the Cathars.
Buddhism, which in the original teachings of Siddhartha was hardly a religion at all, since it involved no divinity and was intended only to free its disciples from the illusion of reality created by desire, had by now — more than 1000 years later — evolved into an elaborate system of belief with its own divinities, demons and, especially in the variety practised in China, the belief in an afterlife of happiness reserved for believers.
This is what we seem to see represented in the central panel at the back of the sarcophagus, facing the entrance: Yu Hong and his wife sit in a heavenly pavilion at the top of which is the Buddhist motif of the pearl. She kneels or sits cross-legged, but he is represented sitting with one leg crossed in an attitude associated with Amitabha Buddha, as they feast together, entertained by a collection of musicians.
In the centre of the scene, however, is another reminder of Yu Hong’s Western origins: a dancer shown as he alights from a leaping pirouette, grinning with almost grotesque features and an enormous nose. And on closer inspection, almost all the attendants and musicians have clearly non-Chinese features, as well as the deceased man himself, with his long Iranian face and thick beard.
Still more striking are the images directly below, which represent men fighting with lions. Almost mirror images, they move with a balletic grace, especially in their legs and pointed feet, although the head of each is being devoured by a lion; one, indeed, has already pierced the lion with his sword, but too late to save his life. On the flanking side panels too, a pair of men, one mounted on a camel and the other on a diminutive elephant, are engaged in a struggle with lions.
This motif has been associated with the Zoroastrian iconography in which Ahriman, the spirit of evil and darkness, is represented as a lion. The subject of the lion hunt had already been a powerful symbol of royal valour under the Assyrians who preceded the Persians, and it was a durable one: when Alexander, by conquering Persia, became the successor to Cyrus the Great and his descendants — as was recognised in the Persian historical epic, the Shahnameh — he felt it incumbent on him to hunt lions to symbolise the legitimacy of his claim.
Even the motif of the lion attacking the bull, found at Persepolis and much imitated in Greek art after Alexander (as in the Hellenistic Lion attacking a horse from the Capitoline Museum in Rome, on loan to the Getty Museum in Malibu earlier this year) is present here, with an interesting and telling nuance: the lion, a subject probably unfamiliar to the artist and perhaps copied, as has been suggested, from a pattern-book, is stylised and archaic in form. The ox, on the other hand, an animal the artist could see every day in the fields in China, is represented much more naturalistically.
Here, then, one seems to find the image of peace achieved in the heaven of Amitabha, which is also the afterlife of Zoroastrianism, surrounded by scenes evoking the struggle against the forces of evil that is recurrent in our earthly life, or perhaps, in Buddhist terms, the struggle against illusion, as in the story of Siddartha’s temptation by the demon Mara before he attained enlightenment.
On either side of the entrance is a pair of panels symmetrical in composition and clearly intended to be read together: on the right, a riderless horse — associated with the dead in Zoroastrian belief — is being prepared by attendants, while on the left a rider carrying a pomegranate advances serenely above the relief of the lion and the ox in the lower register.
It would be tempting to identify the rider as Yu Hong entering paradise but for the fact this figure is beardless and more youthful, and that the two adjacent panels of another rider and a seated figure inside the tomb more closely resemble the bearded figure of the central paradise scene. It is very possible this figure could be Prince Siddhartha himself, leaving his youthful life of luxury to begin his spiritual quest.
In the centre of the front panel, meanwhile, two strange figures, half bird, half man, tend the sacred Zoroastrian fire, which, in a perfect expression of syncretistic reconciliation, is directly below the relief in which the dead man enjoys the rewards of the afterlife.