HE LIVED IN A DI­VERSE AND MUL­TI­CUL­TURAL MI­LIEU

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

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.

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