Saturday, 14 June 2008

Lucy, Jesus, Buddha

One thing I've done in the US which I haven't gotten around to doing much back home is visiting museums. Unfortunately, most museums in India are looked upon as glorified warehouses, with very little effort taken to engage or educate. Out here, a lot more effort is put in, but I guess that's also because they aren't just under the aegis of some governmental agency with a limited budget. Also, I get the feeling that there's just so much stuff that is of some sort of historical significance pretty much strewn around all over, we get a little jaded by it after a while.
Anyway, back to the story at hand: I've managed to visit two museums so far - the Houston Museum of Natural Science and the Museum of Fine Art in Boston. The major crowd-puller at the former was an exhibit called 'Lucy's Legacy', which ostensibly was about Lucy, the skeleton of a nearly 3.2-million-year-old Australopithecus afarensis, but also had a lot of stuff about Ethiopian culture and history (Lucy was discovered in Ethiopia). The MFA had an exhibition of Spanish painters from El Greco to Velasquez, but since I don't really have any clue about them anyway, I chose to wander the halls on my own (also, they were charging more for the special exhibit).
Here are the highlights, if you will, in bite-size pieces:

Jesus with curly hair

More than Lucy, the images that really stayed with me from the exhibit were the icons that are part of the traditions of the Ethiopian church. What struck me was that although the arrangement of the figures in the icons was similar to Christian imagery elsewhere, the actual depictions of characters like Jesus and the apostles were different from that found elsewhere, where they all have European/Aryan features. That might possibly be because the church was founded based on contact with early Christians from Israel and the Middle East itself, not European proselytizers. It's interesting to see how the standard depictions have spread throughout the world though. I wonder if the early Syrian Catholic/Malankara church also had distinct imagery, at least to begin with. Funny how I never really thought of that till I traveled half-way around the world.

The Buddha didn't bother with maintaining a six-pack
The MFA has some good collections of art and sculpture from South-east Asia, including a lot of Buddha statues. While the Buddha may not be the sort of alpha male beefcake, it's still interesting to see how he is never depicted as having, ahem, chiseled abs. Neither, for that matter, does Michelangelo's David. While David, especially, is fairly buffed-out, he doesn't have the extreme definition of underwear models and body-builders. I guess the ancients knew the futility of getting 'cut'. Note - I have no issues with working out to stay in shape, I just think it's pointless to focus on certain muscles only so as to get attention.

Only rich societies equate skinniness with looking good
Through the ages, most depictions of women show them as being fairly well-fed, irrespective of time or location. Look up Nell Gwyn, for example. I suppose being well-fed is an evolutionary sign of being able to survive through lean times or something. I doubt if it's a coincidence that the size zero figure has come to be considered desirable at the same time that human prosperity is at its highest. Kate Moss doesn't have to worry too much about disease and famine.

There was more stuff I learnt, but most of that would be better discussed by the experts. I'm just a blogger, you know.


  1. latin american saints and the like are fascinating just this way. maria del guadalupe is famously the only dark skinned mary accepted by the catholic church, and then theres all these wonderful mixtures of tribal incan and aztec things into the church. and then there's santeria in cube and candomble in brazil which are just amazing in their rewriting of catholicism while indignantly claiming their very cahtolicness.

  2. Not a whole lot is known about the early Malankara Church. I think maybe they have some idea of the kind of litany was originally used. They absorbed a lot from the Syrian traders who started coming in the middle ages, and then the Catholic missionaries began influencing them.

  3. Is that a way of saying the rest of the post isn't so great? It seemed much better when I composed it in my head, but by the time I typed it out it was pretty late at night and I just gave up after a while.

  4. nope, no backhanded compliments are being handed out...

    just saw Turkey beat Czech republic amazing game!

  5. is that like 3am poetry JC?

  6. Hey JC, where did you find that Steamboats blog? The article about literary style and the internet.

  7. I think that was linked to on Marginal Revolution. Sorry - forgot to tip my hat.