The Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW), is a resource center for scholars devoted to documenting and recording a time that existed thousands of years before Facebook. But they also put on exhibits for the curious, like me. If I tell people I am heading off to see a show called “Pagans, Jews, and Christians at Roman Dura-Europos”, of course eyeballs are rolled. But I am endlessly fascinated in the continuities from then to now: that we have always made art; that gold has always been prized; and that grapes have always been fermented into wine.
Our tradition of adorning ourselves and getting drunk is so old it can never be new. So it is always a pleasure to see an old, old treasure like the pure gold fragment of a plaque embedded with pieces of turquoise that represents a snow leopard from Kazakhstan made about 2800 years ago. A cat of the ancient world that would blend in perfectly at Tiffany’s today.
One Saturday afternoon before hip surgery I needed an art pick-me-up, so I dropped by to see ISAW’s latest exhibit called, ” Echoes of the Past: The Buddhist Cave Temple of Xiangtangshan,” which just closed on January 6. The focus of the show was these earth-carved caves located in northern China near the city of Xiangtangshan. The caves, decorated with beautiful lotus flowers, once housed 20-foot Buddhas, grand bodhisattvas and imaginary monsters sculpted from limestone by unknown artisans sometime between 550 AD, and 577 AD. The monumental Buddhas, with their half-opened eyes and plush lips scream, “benign contentment”.
Staring up at these tranquil giants made me think that the desire to seek a more noble world is timeless. It also made me think that in every culture, in every era man/woman has needed to create art. And sometimes that art has reflected the continuous search for spirituality.