The Metropolitan Museum of Art will present “Tree & Serpent: Early Buddhist Art in India, 200 BCE-400 CE”

- through Francois Leclercq

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Then King Nāga Mucalinda, having realized that the sky was now clear without cloud, having undone his rings from the body of the Graceful, and having removed his own form, and created the appearance of a young brāhmaṇa, stood before the Graceful One, worshiping the Gracious with raised hands.

Mucalinda Sutta

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York will display more than 140 objects of early Buddhist art in a special exhibition titled "Tree & Serpent: Early Buddhist Art in India, 200 BCE–400 CE" from July 18 to November 13. From majestic stone reliefs to sacred reliquaries to exquisite jewellery, the exhibition will tell the story of early Buddhist art, through a presentation of evocative and interwoven themes on this formative period of early Indian art. Key to this moment were the early narrative traditions that informed figurative sculpture in India, as well as its pre-Buddhist origins.

The Met secured loans from more than a dozen lenders across Europe, India and the United States to make the exhibition possible. A diverse range of media will be featured at this exhibition, from precious metals such as gold, silver and bronze to ivory, rock crystal and limestone. As the show's website states:

Highlights include spectacular carvings from South India – masterpieces recently discovered and never on public display – which add to the global canon of early Buddhist art.

(Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The provenances of the objects extend to the oldest centuries of Buddhism, or pre-sectarian Buddhism, between 2 years ago and the 200th century AD. The times delineate about 300 to 400 years after the death of the historical Buddha, during which the first genres of Buddhist art appeared on the Indian subcontinent, and several centuries after the Mahayana Buddhist schools spread across the Asia.

The title is particularly powerful and gives a vivid impression of what visitors to the exhibition can expect. Since the beginnings of civilization, the serpent has crept into human culture and consciousness as an archetype of divine wisdom and insight. The tree is also a cross-cultural symbol of life and enlightenment, with the Bodhi tree being one of the earliest objects of reverence due to its relationship with the Buddha. However, as the exhibition will demonstrate, the role of trees and serpents in Buddhist art dates back to long before the time of the Buddha. Recalling the first period after the Buddha attained enlightenment, ancient stories recall that he sat under a Mucalinda tree, while Mucalinda himself, the king of the five-headed serpents – who figures prominently in the “Tree & Serpent” exhibit – sheltered the Blessed One from a storm that raged for seven days and seven nights. There are few other scenes in the Buddhist scriptures which further highlight the power of the tree and the serpent in the story of the Buddha and of pre-sectarian Buddhism.

In a June 2022 lecture at the Chau Chak Wing Museum, Sydney, on the upcoming 'Tree & Serpent' exhibition, curator John Guy noted that trees and serpents were seen as the personifications of the deities of the spirit of nature. They became a ubiquitous presence in early forms of Buddhist art, which manifested materially in the form of stupas. Spatially and artistically, the stupa was essential because it not only housed the relics of the Buddha, "but also honored him through symbolic representations and visual narratives". (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Stupa drum panel with a serpent honoring the Buddhapada (footprint), Dhulikatta stupa, Karimnagar district, Telangana. Andradesa, first century BC – first century AD. Limestone. At

“Tree & Serpent” will feature original relics, reliquaries and the Buddha image as main exhibits. On many of these early stupas, especially along the relief panels, whether on stupa drums, enclosure balustrades or monumental gateways, images of trees and serpents appear. At stupa sites in the Deccan, such as Andhradesa, Kanaganahalli, Phanigiri and other places along the Krishna River, serpents and trees have been "systematically appropriated into the artistic repertoire in the service of early Buddhism". (GLAM)

An upcoming catalog by Guy, The Tree and the Serpent: Primitive Buddhist Art in Indiawill be published by the Met in July 2023. tree and snake will consist of contributions from scholars around the world on the subjects of Indo-Roman exchange and Roman bronzes and coins found in India, the wider economic patterns of India in classical antiquity, and financial life monks. The book being an accompaniment to the exhibition, The Tree and the Serpent: Primitive Buddhist Art in India will also discuss pre-Buddhist stupas, relics and nature cults. These pre-Buddhist cults worshiped tree, earth and water spirits, and their primordial presence is evident in the art.

When the Buddha appeared in the world, these forces of nature were all incorporated into the new wisdom tradition, as his movement grew from a body of meditative and ethical teachings into a great religious tradition spanning the whole of India, South Asia and beyond.

The exhibition is made possible by Reliance Industries Limited, the Robert HN Ho Family Foundation Global and the Fred Eychaner Fund.

Major support is provided by the Estate of Brooke Astor, the Florence and Herbert Irving Fund for Exhibitions of Asian Art, and the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation.

The symposium is made possible by the Fred Eychaner Fund.

The catalog is made possible by the Florence and Herbert Irving Fund for Asian Art Publications.

Additional support is provided by Albion Art Co., Ltd.

(Metropolitan Museum of Art)

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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