Art has paid homage to deities for thousands of years. Understanding these works involves journeys through time and across cultures-with some unexpected findings along the way.
Interpreting art is a tricky, uncertain endeavor, particularly when the gods are involved. Take, for example, Fudo Myo-o, an esoteric Japanese Buddhist deity whose likenesses date back to the twelfth century. He was sometimes confused with Ususama, another Buddhist deity who was regarded as a devourer of stinking matter.
As a result, statues of poor Fudo Myo-o were occasionally placed near bathrooms in Buddhist temples. What is pleasing to one deity is perhaps not so enjoyable to another.
For millennia, religious statues, paintings, and diagrams have been created not only as objects to be admired, but also as tools for maintaining relations with ancestors, gods, and the dead transform- ing the human body and soul; and foreseeing and changing the future. But in spite of the original intentions behind them, they are-as in the case of Fudo Myo-o-subject to reinterpretations over time.
Even relatively current works can leave us scratching our heads, wondering what their creators intended. The 1918 plumbing contraption titled God, attributed to Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven and Morton Schamberg, is intended to be a statement on technology, but leaves us to wonder what sort of statement the artists intended to make about a Supreme Being. We know from records that Freytag-Loringhoven wrote to Solomon Guggenheim that "God should take lessons on production efficiency from Henry Ford." Still, the meaning of "God" in any work of art lies within its beholders.
For older works unaccompanied by records from the original artists, we are left to find meaning on our own. A tenth-century South Indian Hindu statue, for instance, at first appears to depict the god Brahma, who is frequently shown with four heads. Yet, the detail of a third eye on the foreheads suggests that this is the god Shiva-an interpretation that is accepted by most scholars, even though Shiva is not usually portrayed with four heads. In studying artwork from cultures with multiple gods, scholars often base their interpretations on the salient design features generally associated with a certain god. For the South Indian Hindu statue, for instance, it is more likely that Shiva would be depicted with four heads than Brahma be given a third eye. This approach, however, is not foolproof: The possibility remains that someone could have created Brahma with three eyes precisely because no one had done so before.
These examples point to a main challenge in interpreting works of religious art: They can conceivably be interpreted to represent anything. Art historians and religious scholars become like archaeologists, deciphering pieces, looking for details, discerning clues to the past. The work is vast, sometimes taking them across cultures with accumulated knowledge as their guide.
To even guess at how artwork depicting the female Buddhist figure Guanyin grew out of earlier representations of a male Indian figure, scholars had to know something of the transference of Buddhist practice to China. It was there, they believe, that the figure came to represent a deity that women would pray to in order to bear sons-which in that age was more desirable than bearing daughters. To understand why African artists came to create two kinds of religious artwork-one for local ceremonial use and a slightly different sort of "traditional African religious art" for a foreign market-scholars would have to be familiar with the winds of fashion: Late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century African art, such as Ibo carvings from Nigeria, enjoyed a vogue in Europe during Picasso's time.
For all the ambiguity involved in interpreting religious artworks, the endeavor can enrich one's appreciation for the stakes involved in creating, using, and sometimes reimagining them. After all, such works are testaments to religious goals and practices that have always been in flux and sometimes in conflict. By learning their histories, it perhaps becomes easier to appreciate the ways in which ongoing conflicts, transformations, and resolutions have shaped the histories of our spiritual lives.