Central Asia rediscovered
After years of renovation, the Hermitage’s Central Asian galleries reopen with a spectacular new display.
Published: February 27, 2013 (Issue # 1748)
One of the objects on view in the newly reopened Central Asian galleries.
Few people might identify Central Asia as one of the birthplaces of globalization, but those who view it as a strictly 21st-century phenomenon may be surprised to learn that similar cultural and commercial exchanges have been taking place for thousands of years in the arid steppes and mountains of China and Mongolia.
Visitors to the State Hermitage Museum once again have the opportunity to investigate its fascinating collection of art from the region, titled “The Culture and Art of Central Asia,” which reopened Feb. 14 after a long period of renovation.
The exhibition, which contains around 1,000 artifacts, spans two millennia and features artistic and cultural treasures from across Central Asia that together form a fabulous mosaic of peoples, religions, and artisanship.
“The Culture and Art of Central Asia” is a reminder of the important role merchants and trading in the area played in the development of art and the expansion of religion — mainly Buddhism in this case — and also of how the iconography of these religions changed through interaction with various cultures.
The Hermitage’s collection includes pieces from various parts of the vast region, including East Turkestan (the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China), Tibet, Mongolia, Buryatia and the western borderlands of modern-day China.
The Mongolian collection is especially extensive, spanning from the first centuries B.C. to the 14th century. Its diversity testifies to the waves of different cultures that passed through the region during this period.
Of particular interest is the collection of artifacts from the Noin-Ula kurgans, a group of 1st-century B.C. burial mounds excavated in northern Mongolia by Soviet explorer Pyotr Kozlov in 1923-1924. Here you can marvel at the ancient skills of the Xiongnu aristocracy, evident in a wealth of objects retrieved from the 200 kurgans, from household items and parts of chariots to lacquered cups and silver jewelry.
But most striking are the silk fabrics, with their diverse ornamentation and highly technical embroidery, which testify to the close links the Xiongnu enjoyed with China.
The area later came under Turkic influence, and this is represented by a helmet, arrowheads, and a stone head with an untranslated runic inscription dating from the 6th or 7th century — one of only two such heads found in Mongolia.
The exhibition also features a number of cultural artifacts and works of art from oasis cities located along the route of the Great Silk Road, the vast ancient network of trade routes linking Asia to Europe.
Iranians, Indians, Chinese, Turks and Tibetans all left their mark here over the centuries, leaving their pottery, figurines of humans and animals, and household objects behind them.
However, it was Buddhism that left the greatest imprint on the art of the area. As it spread upwards from India to China during the early part of the first millennium, Buddhism exerted a powerful influence on the cultures along the Silk Road, and this is evident in clay sculptures of Buddhas and the cave paintings taken from Bezeklik Monastery at Turpan in Xinjiang, with their generous gold ornamentation and the fascinating presence of images of Persians, Indians and Europeans.
Also on display are items from another great Buddhist cave monastery — the vast complex of the “Caves of the Thousand Buddhas” at Mogao near Dunhuang in China’s Gansu province, a repository of some of the world’s finest Buddhist art, spanning a 1,000-year period. On show are brightly-colored wall paintings, banners, fabrics, and various sculptures of Bodhisattva and monks
Two halls are devoted to artifacts relating to the Mahayana form of Buddhism practiced in Tibet and Mongolia. Silver Buddhist sculptures from Buryatia sit alongside women’s jewelry and belt fittings, as well as examples of thangka — paintings on silk or embroidery depicting Buddhist deities. Here it is possible to follow the expansion of Buddhism from Mongolia into Buryatia and Kalmykia by observing the varying iconography of the thangka from place to place, allowing the development of regional iconographic characteristics to be traced.
As Buddhism reached Tibet and Mongolia, its iconography began to include images of the Buddha not just in sculpture and temples but also in stucco, wall paintings, silk tapestries and vases.
This movement away from purely temple-based iconography also shows the Buddha moving away from the more traditional Greco-Roman representation into one far more characteristically Eastern, while retaining the man-god imagery introduced by merchants from the West. It is these images of a far more oriental Buddha that have endured to become the images most often associated with Buddhism today.
In fact, besides trade, religion was also a significant driver of population movements in the region, and the exhibition demonstrates a clear causality between the expansion of Buddhism and the evolution of Central Asia’s heritage and visual art as a result of the cultural influence of the various peoples with whom Buddhism came into contact.
This glimpse into the kaleidoscopic cultural legacy of what is today one of the world’s least economically developed areas is a fascinating reminder that globalization has been with us for centuries in one form or another — but also that prosperity is by nature ephemeral.