History of Asian Art 3A Banerji Vishnu and Shiva at the Norton Simon In Southeast Asia art is influenced by Hinduism and is often depicts just a few characters: primary the god’s Vishnu, the preserver, and Shiva, the destroyer. Although the subject matters are often of the same representation, at times they can be hard to distinguish from one other to the untrained eye. Despite the variances of artistic styling, diachronically and synchronically, the symbolism remains the same. Through understanding the iconography of Vishnu and Shiva one can retell the story of Hindu art.
The distinguishing traits that set Vishnu apart from other figures are that he is rendered with a crown, often looking like a tall cone shaped hat. His chest is shown with the srivasta mark, or a jewel, symbolizing his wife Lakshmi. He has two main consorts Lakshmi and Saraswati. Draped from Vishnu’s shoulders is a garland of flowers, vanamaalaa. Although other deities will also have multiple arms, Vishnu is always depicted to have four arms.
The two front arms indicate the physical world and the two back arms denote the spiritual realm. His mount, vahana, Garuda is a zoomorphic eagle with the head of a man.
He also has many avatars in which he is portrayed as. Vishnu is found holding four items; a conch shell, a wheel or disc weapon representing the chakra, a mace, and a lotus flower. Within the collection of artworks in the Norton Simon Museum Vishnu is depicted in ways that both easily recognizable, and subtle. Sometimes works will even give the impression of Vishnu but are actually other deities or figures. Vishnu is clearly represented in a 10th century brownish-grey schist relief called “Vishnu as Vaikuntha. ” This three-headed version of Vishnu, shows Vishnu as the boar avatar and man-lion avatar.
He holds in his upper hands a lotus flower and conch shell while his lower hands touch the heads of a club-women and wheel-man. His body is also embraced by a garland. In a sandstone rendering of a Hindu Deity, 7th century from Thailand, Si Thep, Mon-Dvaravati period, art historians are unsure if the piece belongs to Vishnu or Surya, the sun god. The piece is fragmented and simply portrayed. He sports a hat and a broken sun disc is fashioned behind him. The hat resembles one of Vishnu’s key attributes but the lack of other symbols and the additional sun disc leaves art historians unsure of the deity’s identity.
Although there are telling attributes to recognize Vishnu by, sometimes the lack of multiple icons and the integration of other symbols makes it challenging to distinguish one deity from another. According to the Norton Simon Museum’s description of Shiva he is found with a vertical third-eye symbolizing omniscience and ability to eradicate ignorance, a double-sided drum signifying the creation dance, a cobra indicating his reign over death, a raised left foot representing liberation, flames of destruction denoting Shiva as the destroyer, and Ganga the river goddess caught in Shiva’s matted hair and brings the water of life.
Shiva is often found standing on the demon, or dwarf, of forgetfulness/ignorance (Norton Simon Museum). Aside from these symbols it is also characteristic of Shiva to be seen with a crescent moon in his hair, a trident, a deer, his consort Pavarti, his vahana the bull, and a garland of skulls. In an 11th century bronze rendering of “Shiva as the Lord of Dance (Nataraja)”, from Tamil Nadu India, Shiva is easily recognized. The piece is a dancing male figure with one foot raised and four arms in rhythmic gestures. Shiva stands on the dwarf of forgetfulness and the sculpture is encircled by flames.
In his matted hair, which is a sign of his asceticism, is Ganga. She is portrayed just off center to the right and slightly behind the crescent moon which looks like a barrette. In his right hand he holds a two-sided drum and in his left hand a flame. A discreetly sculpted snake wraps his right arm. This piece is easy recognized as Shiva especially because the figure is shown dancing which is a traditional portrayal of Shiva. The Norton Simon also displays other figures dancing such as Ganesha and Krisna, but the symbolism greatly differs and so the works are easily told apart.
Another rendering would be, “Shiva with Uma and Bull,” from Vietnam, ancient Champa, 10th – 11th century. This piece is a sandstone works and in style looks very different from the Nataraja from India. It shows a seated Shiva with his wife Uma and vahana Nandi, the bull. The Norton Simon suggests that the piece’s background is phallic and represents the lingam, another iconographic symbol of Shiva. Although it portrays a different aspect of Shiva and is the artistic technique various one would still know it is Shiva by the symbolism of the bull.
In the Asia Art Garden at the Norton Simon is unique 16th century representation of Shiva in the form of “Bull with Shivalingam and Other Deities” from Rajastan, India. The bull represents Shiva and is marked with many symbols. On the crest of the bull’s back is a lingam. In his ears are his two sons, Ganesha, and Kumara and his peacock. The bull’s front left leg is marked with a cobra, while the right is labeled by Shiva’s trident. Interestingly on the sides of the bull are a turtle, a fish, lotus, and a conch shell which all represent Vishnu.
It is not uncommon to find symbols of other deities in renderings or in temples to gods the primary god. But the main god will be in the focus and in a temple it will be in will be in the center with Ganesha facing south, the alternate god facing east (if it’s a Shiva cave: Vishnu and if it’s a Vishnu cave: Shiva), Brahma facing north, and Durga/Devi facing west. On the Bull there is also a swastika symbol which in India culture represents circumambulation, revolving around the sun, and a form of meditation. Ironically there’s also a symbol that looks like the Star of David. Figures that resemble boar avatars can also be found.
As one can see there are many ways in which Asian art depicts Vishnu and Shiva. In the Norton Simon alone there were examples of Vishnu and Shiva from Thailand, India, Cambodia, as well as neighboring countries, which all had distinct styles. The deities were rendered as themselves and were symbolically portrayed through avatars and icons. Regardless of the means one can discern Shiva and Vishnu from each other and other figures through the iconography which is canonized throughout Southeast Asia. Works Cited: “Norton Simon Museum. ” Asian Art A». N. p. , n. d. Web. 15 Dec. 2012.
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