Asian images inside out: What the contents of statues can tell us about domestic and communal religion

On Feb 13, 2018, Professor James Robson gave a lecture at Boston University. In this lecture, he argued about how do art historians start to analyze the materials inside the religious images in Asia and what the contents of statues can tell us about domestic and communal religion. There are three pieces of evidence that he provided: first, the textual evidence of documents that show that people were advised to leave a hole to put the relic or any other types of materials to life to the image of God. Second, the textual evidence of the acquisition notes that explicitly said that there were lapis lazilo, rock crystal, and other materials found on the back side of the statues. Lastly, the massive amount of materials that were found in the images during restorations by the art historians. His conclusion was that “[for] most of the [Asian religious] objects in museums, we [the audience] have no idea what we [they] are looking at. At some point, there are [always] some objects put inside as a part of a ritual process, which is very common to the practice to bring life to the image.”

Throughout the lecture, Professor Robson exhibited multiple examples of the sculptures both from domestic and communal region practice. As he pointed out, the common attribute of those images is that there is always a hole inside for people to stuff materials inside. According to documents, it is a normal practice that is part of the religious practice in Asia. By stuffing a variety of materials inside the sacred figure, people were believed that they brought life to the image. 

This ritual is so common in Asia that even people who have different religious believes are doing the same practice. Professor Robson pointed out that a seventh-century document testified that the practice began in India and traveled to China. However, the art historians have little knowledge about this practice, until 1950s. The Seiryoji Shaka image opened a whole new range of scholarship as people found a huge quantity of text, textile, and coins that were put inside. Lately, as the technology is becoming more and more advanced, people would not need to damage the religious imagery to analyze what are the materials stuffed inside. 

Apart from the new technology and the acquisition notes, the art historians were able to find evidence from notes from the missionary who traveled to China and wrote about the objects inside the images. In some documents, they mentioned that “you put the materials inside, then they are a living deity.” This also testified goal of this common practice. Professor Robson commented that there is a lot of information is out there but art historians haven’t discovered them earlier. 

Professor Robson also mentioned his project in China where he and his colleague cataloged thousands of idol icons that were used in both domestic context and communal context for idol worship. The idols and icons are the very important image to Chinese idol worship and those small wooden statues he cataloged are usually found in small outdoor village shrine or one somebody’s home altar. This show the domestic level of practice. What’s more, the clothes, medicine package, texts, and other materials they found in the statues were impressive because they made him think how did the landlocked place like Hunan get stuff like seahorses to put inside the images. 

I think his arguments were persuasive as he pulled out textual evidence from a variety of sources, as well as the physical stuff he found in the statues he cataloged. His intended audience was probably art history scholars and who were interested in Asian religious imagery. He pointed out a direction that was not fully explored by the scholars and he encouraged the audience to think about what they are looking at and to think more about if there is anything else beyond what they physically see.