A papier-mache sentinel posted at the entry to Warren Wilson College’s Holden Gallery ushers viewers into a magnificent facsimile of another world.
Forty years ago, art historians discovered a set of scrolls in a monastery along a remote border of northern China. These intricate, Emperor-commissioned paintings were created by a group of unknown painters in the 15th century, made for use in the Water and Land Rite, a ceremony performed to deliver all sentient beings from the poisons of ignorance, hatred and craving.
The rite originated in the 10th century, and, when performed in monasteries, takes seven days and involves hundreds of Buddhist monks and nuns.
One-hundred-thirty-nine scrolls comprise the original set, 31 of which will be hung in the gallery Thanksgiving weekend. The silk paintings — 72 inches tall, 28 inches wide and meticulously copied directly from the originals, again by unknown artists — are hung above tables draped in bright-yellow fabric and punctuated with red silk tassels and elaborate brocades depicting dragons and lotus flowers. The tables hold paper “chairs” and paper cards representing gifts for the invited celebrants, including offerings of candles, nuts, pears, grapefruit, acorn squash, and incense.
During the ritual, the aforementioned sentient beings are divided into two groups, the “world transcendent beings” and the “worldly bound beings.” If both groups are invited to attend a banquet, the sage group can help free the unenlightened guests from their suffering. The images on the scrolls show the guests at the banquet, and the “worldly” images are as terrifying as medieval depictions of Christian hell: Naked blue figures are huddled in misery in an icy landscape, while others fry in a hot pit.
Surprisingly relevant today, the third panel in this series reveals familiar images: Poor people are shown drowned in floods. Their corpses float in the water.
Beginning with the eleventh panel, the images become deities from the Upper Hall. But whether lowly or exalted, all the characters are done in soft colors, somewhat quieting the vibrancy of the table coverings and accessories. Resplendent with rhythm and repeated swirls of draped fabric, smoke and clouds, the paintings are exquisite. They have been recreated with all the care used by Christian monks copying pre-printing-press Psalters.
A floor-to-ceiling banner serves as the invitation to the feast, and a five-foot papier-mache horse-and-rider are couriers. Along with the sentinel, the horse-and-rider were made by Warren Wilson student Allison Long, with help from Alex Dietz and Elsa Litsky. Other exhibited extras include a red-draped altar holding a bronze Buddha; singing bowls and incense bowls; brass bells; an embroidered panel featuring a lotus blossom; a dress form holding a yellow robe, beautifully accented with a bright-red drape; and the bejeweled crown worn by the chief celebrant — all lovely to look at.
But the paintings alone are worthy of great attention, and for a Westerner, it’s hard to focus away from all the interesting accouterments. For anyone, the exhibit merits at least a second look.
[Connie Bostic is an Asheville-based painter. Her work can be seen in Strange Beauty: New Perspectives, an exhibit at Western Carolina University’s Fine Art Museum showcasing noted WCU alumnae.]
For the Sake of All Beings: Chinese Ritual Art at Warren Wilson College’s Holden Gallery runs through Sunday, Dec. 4. A closing ritual will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 3. 771-2005.