Welcome to the GTU Sacred World Art Collection

In 2014, the Institute for Aesthetic Development (IAD) and F. Lanier Graham donated an extensive teaching collection of sacred objects to the Graduate Theological Union. This virtual exhibition features forty of the over 500 spiritual and ritual objects from the collection.

Graham has worked most of his life as an art and museum curator and art and world religions professor. His written works are extensive and many address issues of aesthetics and the spiritual. As president and director of the IAD for over 40 years, he has developed many innovative educational programs for schools, museums, cultural centers, and television.

This exhibition, supported by the Jane Dillenberger Fine Arts Endowment Fund, is a first step to present objects online from the collection. Virtual access is especially necessary as an educational tool in today’s world. Additional objects can be viewed by selecting the “View Catalog” button.

Later this Spring, the GTU will host a similar event to announce the Spirit-Matter virtual exhibit. Featuring two exhibition catalogs, which will be available online and in print, these provide a closer look at the GTU Sacred World Art Collection. Originally planned as a physical exhibition in the library, and cancelled due to the pandemic, the virtual format allows for extensive discussion of world sacred art and spirituality in modern art.

Along with this virtual access, once normal times resume, the collection will be available to our faculty and students for research and classroom use.


You’ve heard of using wings to fly, but have you heard of using no-wings to fly? You’ve heard of using knowing to know, but have you heard of using no-knowing to know?

Gaze into that cloistered calm, that chamber of emptiness where light is born. To rest in stillness is great good fortune. If we don’t rest there, we keep racing around even when we’re sitting quietly. Follow sight and sound deep inside, and keep the knowing mind outside.

Chuang Tzu (David Winton, translator)

China is the oldest continuous civilization on earth. During the 20th century, excavations of Stone Age artifacts uncovered evidence that much of the famous symbolism of later China such as dragons, mandalas, and goddesses went back at least 7,000 years ago. As with the oldest jade objects, the exact meanings of these objects have been lost.

Shamanism was at the heart of Bronze Age China, continuing from Stone Age spiritual traditions. Kings were considered divine, and their power was of a shamanic kind. The center of Chinese culture was the divine Emperor and his court. In many ways, this god­king was the primary male deity in China, while Kwan Yin, the ancient Mother Goddess, was the primary female deity. Confucianism refined folk beliefs and institutional rules, and Taoism developed forms of mysticism.

Buddhism reached northern China during the Han Dynasty (3rd century BCE to 3rd century CE), when the earliest known Chinese image of Buddha appeared. The teachings of karma, reincarnation, and enlightenment were not part of Chinese tradition. The cult remained small at first, but grew during the following chaotic political era of the Six Dynasties. Buddhism became widespread during the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907 CE).

In the 21st century, while the State is atheistic, most of the population are reported to practice Confucianism or some form of Chinese folk religion. Other religions are also recognized: Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity, and Islam.


Pearl of Wisdom Nineteenth-century Chinese Embroidery

19th Century | China | Fabric and thread | 18 x 14”

This nineteenth-century Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) embroidery is a detail of the pearl of wisdom, also known as the pearl of the dragon. This detail is similar to larger images that adorned royal robes, featuring a dragon.

A pearl has a mystical association with dragons in the traditions of China, India and Japan. There are different legends. Some associate a fiery pearl with the sun. When there are jagged red lines with the pearl, the lines may represent thunder and the dragons, clouds. A blue pearl is associated with a full moon. When there is a comma like attachment underneath the pearl, the interpretation is yang (dragons) and yin, male and female.

One interpretation of a pair of dragons chasing a pearl is decorative and descriptive. This interpretation is that they are playing with the pearl, as one traditional design pattern for carving jade is “A dragon frolicking with a pearl.”

However, the enduring popularity of the dragons and pearl also has a deeper appeal, based on early Taoism and Buddhism. The flaming pearl is a symbol of good luck, prosperity, and wisdom. In Buddhism, a pearl is considered the jewel of the lotus, standing for a spiritual wealth based on the virtues of wisdom and compassion. This interprets the dragons, by legend supernaturally wise, chasing the pearl as the search for truth.

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Guanyin Head

Date under study | China | Bronze | 10 x 6 x 6”

In Chinese Buddhism, Kwan Yin (Guanyin or Kuan Yin) is synonymous with the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, who is a pinnacle of mercy, compassion, kindness and love. A Bodhisattva is a being of enlightenment or “bodhi,” one who has earned the state to leave the world of suffering and destined to become a Buddha. Rather than enter the bliss of nirvana, they vow to remain in order to save humanity.

Kwan Yin's veneration was introduced into China around the 1st century CE. The Bodhisattva is represented prior to the Song Dynasty (960-1279) as masculine. Images later appear either male or female, as a Bodhisattva could appear in which ever form is needed to relieve suffering. The association with the seventh century Buddhist saint Miao Shan in the 12th century furthered the appearance as female. By the modern period, Guan Yin is usually shown as a white-robed woman.

Resource: Anh Q. Tran, SJ, “Kuan-Yin: A Case of Inculturation in Chinese Buddhism,”

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Kwan Yin and Stage

19th Century | China | Bome/Ivory |32 x 17.75 x 5

Here is the Thousand Armed Kwan Yin with a thousand eyes. The name is also spelled Guan Yin, Kuan Yin, and similar variations. The translation for this Goddess of Mercy is " She Who Sees and Hears the Cries of the World." In this iconography, the many eyes assist her with seeing the needs of many and the many arms in order to help the needy.

According to legend, these were provided to her by Amitabha Buddha, to address her difficulty in comprehending all the suffering. Then when two arms were insufficient, with a thousand arms to help the multitude. The character on the back is "Buddha." Underneath the figure is carved the dancing dragons with the pearl.
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Tiger Ritual Vessel for Wine

Shang Dynasty (replica) | China | Bronze | 13 x 7 x 9”

The bronze vessels of ancient China are widely considered the finest bronze objects ever made. They were extremely important in Bronze Age China. It was through the offerings made inside them that the shamans communicated with the ancestors and the deities. (F. Lanier Graham)

This is a replica of a bronze "you" vessel used to hold liquids for ritual sacrifice, in the form of a tiger with a human head in its jaws. In Chinese tradition, the Tiger is a totemic animal that symbolizes protection. Some interpret the Tiger to be the medium through which the Shaman or Necromancer communicates with Heaven. An explanation of the tiger-human theme from Gilles Béguin, Arts de l’Asie au Musée Cernuschi is: "It may be related to a tradition recorded in the Zuozhuan, an ancient commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals (8th-5th centuries BC), which describes how the grandson of Ruoao, from the kingdom of Chu, by the name of Ziwen, was adopted and fed by a tigress when he was a child."

Resource: Christian Deydier, Understanding Ancient Chinese Bronzes, Their Importance in Chinese Culture, Their Shapes, Functions and Motif, 2015.

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Rhinoceros, A Ritual Vessel

Shang Dynasty (replica) | China | Bronze | 9.5 x 12 x 4.5”

This form of a covered ritual vessel is called a "gong." Each seems to have been shaped for a particular purpose, a purpose relating to the kind of sacrifice being made and the animal spirit to which the sacrifice was being made. Sometimes, as in this case, the intended animal may well have been the totem animal of a tribal group. Rhinos, like elephants, ran wild in Bronze Age China. Now, like the elephant, there are none, except in captivity. For many centuries, the main type of Chinese military armor was Rhino hide. (F. Lanier Graham)

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Owl, A Ritual Vessel

Shang Dynasty (replica) | China | Bronze | 12 x 5 x 8”

The owl is one of the traditional shapes of bronze ritual vessels used during the Shang Dynasty and the Chou Dynasty. It was the most important bird in their iconography. In many shamanic traditions the owl represents wisdom. Greek mythology, for example, continued that tradition in the form of Athena to whom the owl was sacred, but Chinese mythology did not. Many times, the owl appears in ancient Chinese art in association with death. Professor Hugo Munsterberg in his Symbolism in Ancient Chinese Art thinks the owl was "the protector of the beloved dead in the darkness of the grave." Later, Chinese mythology gave the owl a negative meaning. The owl became a fearsome creature whose cry is still thought to be the harbinger of death. Typically used to hold a fermented ritual beverage.

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Kuan Yin

20th Century | China | Porcelain | 11.5 x 3.625 x 2.75”

Before the spirit of Buddhist sculpture began to diminish, there was a striking change in the image of Kwan Yin. The Buddhist deity of Mercy and Compassion in India was a male figure named Avalokitesvara. When he came to China, he gradually merged with the traditional Taoist Mother Goddess, Kwan Yin. His gender eventually changed from male to female.

During the transitional period (from the 10th through the 13th centuries) the Kwan Yin figures are androgynous. Since the Sung Dynasty, almost all Kwan Yin statues in China have been female. Since the Ming Dynasty (14th-17th century), the classic statues of Kwan Yin, more graceful than any human could ever be, and worshipped by Buddhists and Taoists, have been made of pure white porcelain. She is now dwelling in millions of homes in this form. (F. Lanier Graham)

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Bi Disk

Date under study | China | Jade | 3” diameter

Bi (formerly “pi”) discs are flat circular jade objects with a hole at its center. The geometric pieces are from the Liangzhu society west of what is now Shanghai. They seem to have flourished between 5000 BCE and 2500 BCE. The Bi and the cong are the two most important of these sacred geometric shapes, which were designed to be buried with the bodies of the departed. This burial ritual continued through the Bronze Age. These discs were placed under and on top of the bodies. At first they were undecorated. Then they became richly decorated with various symbols including the mysterious “taotie” monster mask. Modern scholars debate the meaning of these objects. However, the surviving esoteric Taoist tradition explains that the “nothingness” at the center of the bi and the cong is the path that spirit takes from the earthly world to the heavenly world. (F. Lanier Graham)

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Date under study | China | Jade | 13.75 x 3.25 x 3.25”

Cong (formerly called a "T'sung") red and white jade. When looked at from above or below the distinctive shape of the traditional Cong is a circle-in-a-square, a form which has continued to symbolize the unity of Heaven and Earth in China and a round the world. The Cong is the oldest known form of the classic mandala symbol. Similar objects are found from the Late Neolithic period, Liangzhu culture, ca.3300-2200 B.C.E.

The Cong is a vessel that holds nothing, or perhaps more accurately, it contains "nothingness." They were placed around the body. At first, these ritual objects also were undecorated, but became richly decorated with symbolic shapes and faces. Modern scholars are unsure of the meaning of these objects. However, the surviving esoteric Taoist tradition explains that the "nothingness" at the center of the bi and the cong is the path that spirit takes from the earthly world to the heavenly world. The cong were made in many sizes, apparently depending on the wealth of the deceased. The objects in this exhibition represent the known range of sizes, from the tiny to the monumental. They are all made of sacred jade. Research on the exact dates for all of the Early Chinese pieces is an ongoing curatorial process. (F. Lanier Graham)

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The Earth, bearing upon her many different peoples, speaking many languages, following different dharmas as suit their particular regions, Pour upon us a thousand-fold streams of bountiful treasures to enrich us, like a constant cow that never faileth.

Atharva Veda XII.I.45, (from Diana L. Eck, India: A Sacred Geography)

Throughout the history of India there has been a strong oral tradition that continues to this day. However, in the Axial age, sacred texts such as the Vedas, were first written down. During the 5th century BCE, the historical Buddha emerged. He accepted Hindu teachings such as karma and samsara but transformed other teachings. He objected to traditional elitism and democratized spirituality by offering Enlightenment to all. Truth became available to individuals of all classes and genders. It is said that Buddha did not wish a religion to develop around him, but one did.

Pre-axial age Hindus regarded their deities as exclusive to the Indian people. Buddha expanded this perspective. Because of Buddha, the core teaching of ancient Hinduism became the foundation of a religion not limited to Indians, and spread to other countries. Mahavira, another spiritual leader, emerged out of the Hindu traditions and founded the Jains. They abide by a different set of scriptures and encourage greater asceticism.

Islam reached the country in the ninth century and became thoroughly established by the thirteenth. Their military excursions resulted in the destruction of many Buddhist monasteries and the loss of the royal support of the religion. These and other causes resulted in the demise of Buddhism as a large presence in India. The Islamic rulers discovered there was no way to completely replace the people’s beliefs in Hinduism, so both belief systems existed side by side. In the 15th century, Sikhism, the next major religion emerged, influenced by one of the traditions within Hinduism, along with Sufism to a certain extent. Both Hindus and Muslims joined the Sikhs.

By the 21st century, India is a Hindu country (80%) with a large Islamic population (13%) and substantial adherents to Christianity, Sikhism, Buddhism, Jainism, and other beliefs.


Shiva-Shakti Androgyne

19th/20th Century | India | Bronze | 15 x 6 x 4”

Here the right half of Lord Shiva is joined with the left half of his consort Parvati to form an androgynous figure. This form is Ardhanarishvara, meaning “Lord who is half-woman,” although sometimes described as "half-women/half lord." These figures first appeared in India in the first century CE. Ellen Goldberg examines 17 versions with different variations that include bending and straight postures, a varied number of arms, and different objects (battle axe, trident, drum, mirror, parrot, lotus).

This South Indian Chola style Ardhanarishvara, found in the ninth century, is not exactly equal. The male half has greater power, as there are two right arms instead of one, and one is holding a parasu, Shiva’s battle axe. The figure is in a tribhanga posture with three bends, head to the left, torso to the right, and right leg bent. At the center of the forehead is the third eye, a mark of divine wisdom, although an alternative interpretation is that the mark represents a divine energy associated with the “universal mother.”

These images, both enduring and reinterpreted over centuries in art, combine male and female characteristics and aspects, capturing the joining of opposites, and expressing the non-dual nature of divinity.

Sources: Neeta Yadav, Ardhanarisvara in Art and Literature, 2001; Ellen Goldberg, The Lord Who Is Half Woman: Ardhanarisvara in Indian and Feminist Perspective, 2002.

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Shiva Nataraja, Chola style

20th Century | India | Bronze | 15 x 12 x 4.5”

This iconic image of Shiva may well be the best-known image in all of Indian art. It is called Shiva Nataraja Lord of the Dance. Variations of this basic composition were first made during the Chola Dynasty in southern India during the 11th and 12th centuries. Shiva dances with dynamic grace standing on a personification of egotistical ignorance. Around him is the universe as a whole a flaming circle that represents the glowing globe of the material world. In his right hand is a rattle drum. Its sound activates each moment of time. In his left hand is the flame that burns up each moment at the end of its time. The core concept is that Shiva is doing an endless dance of creation and destruction and re-creation again and again and again. This particular bronze was cast in the 19th or early 20th century but was very well done and has a good deal of the character of the earlier bronzes. This sculpture was done in the 12th century Chola style. (F. Lanier Graham)

Additional information: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Indra Seated

20th Century | Nepal | Bronze | 11 x 9 x 6”

Indra, the Vedic "King of the Gods, Lord of Rain, Holder of the Thunderbolt," is celebrated more often than any other deity in the ancient Rigveda. He is represented here by a luminous example of one of the most famous plastic forms in the sacred art of Hinduism. This general image of Indra was taking shape in Nepal by the 10th century, and was given this particular iconic form in Nepal during the 12th and 13th centuries. He wears a royal crown or tiara and sits in a relaxed pose. The exceptionally high quality of Nepali craftsmanship has been admired throughout Asia for many centuries. The traditions of Hinduism and sacred craftsmanship are still alive in Nepal where Hindus and Buddhists dwell peacefully side-by-side. This statue was made in Nepal, a few years ago by a devout Hindu artist, in the traditional style. It was commissioned by the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, which supports the continuing sculptural tradition of Nepal. (F. Lanier Graham)

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Snake Goddess, Naga Kanya

19th Century | India | Bronze | 9.75 x 8 x 4”

Nagas are serpent-like spirits who live in water. Serpent cults date back to the earliest Indus Valley civilizations around 2500 BCE. Stories about nagas appear frequently in Asian mythologies and religions. In Sanskrit, "nag" is the word for cobra and is sometimes used in a general way for snakes or serpents.

Nagas play multiple roles, usually as guardians of treasure and connected to rain. Their powers can be absorbed by other deities, witnessed by the cobra wrapped around the arm in the Shiva Nataraja, Chola style image. Sometimes they offer their help, as with Mucilanda, a Naga king, protecting the Buddha from a torrential storm. Naga sometimes symbolizes the energy of kundalini.

In Hindu mythology, Naga kanya is considered either the queen or the name for the group of these serpentine spirits. She appears as half human and half serpent. Here five cobras rise behind her, along with her wings. She holds a conch shell that is a treasure of wisdom. By legend, she was created at the same time as Garudas, who are enemies. In Tibetan Buddhism, garudas are placed one level higher than nagas.

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Female Figurine Head, Indus Valley

c. 2500 BCE | Mehrgarh | Terracotta | 1.5 x 0.75 x 0.25”

A head of a terracotta female figurine found at the Mehrgarh site in the Indus Valley in modern Pakistan. The archeological site shows human activity in Neolithicic times, proof of early agrarian activity in South Asia at the foot of the Indus-Sarasvati or Harappan civilization. The earliest figurines found at this site are female, crafted with various headdresses, and sometimes holding an infant and sometimes depicted with large hips. While assumed to represent either a fertility goddess or a mother goddess, recent scholars such as Carla M. Sinopoli, caution against this interpretation. The star appears to be a headdress. Male figurines begin to appear later in this culture, showing genitalia and often wearing a turban. Sinopoli observes that the appearance of male figurines may mean a change in the culture's view of gender.

Resources: Live History India; Human Journey; https://www.harappa.com/; Carla M. Sinopoli, "Gender and Archeology in South and Southwest Asia," World of Gender:The Archeology of Women's Lives Around the Globe (2007) 73-96.

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Yoni-Linga with Cobra

20th Century | India | Bronze | 3.5 x 3 x 2”

The Naga (cobra) rising above a lingham, a symbol of Shiva and maleness, which rests on a yoni, the symbol for Shakti and the womb. These two images represent the merging of energies and forces, such as creation and regeneration, as well as masculine and feminine. The cobra references Shiva and the energy in kundalini. These symbols are common within Shaivism, one of the major traditions within Hinduism focused on Shiva.

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From birdsong and the sighing of the trees,
From shafts of light and from the sky itself,
May living beings, each and every one,
Perceive the constant sound of Dharma.

Dedication-37, The Way of the Bodhisattva, Shantidiva (Shambhala, 2008)

Buddhism was founded in the fifth century BCE by Siddhartha Gautama in Northern India. His followers spread the religion throughout the East and Southeast Asia. Today, the faith has grown in influence in the West. Its core teaching of the Four Noble Truths and the Eight Fold Path address how to eliminate suffering in the world and achieve a state of inner peace and wisdom. Different forms of Buddhism emphasize different texts and interpretations of Buddha’s teachings. The main forms of Buddhism are largely regional: Theravada—Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Sri Lanka, and Burma; Mahayana —China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Vietnam; and Tibetan—Tibet, Bhutan, Mongolia, and areas in India, China, and Russia. There are also subsects, such as Zen Buddhism. The images that emerged in sculpture and on paper profoundly represent the life of Buddha, Bodhisattvas, associated symbols, and beliefs.


Future Buddha, Maitreya

3rd-5th Century CE | China |Bronze | 16.5 x 7 x 4.5”

This archaic altar is based on the Greco-Buddhist style of the Gandhara region in Northwest India. These were brought to China by Indian monks teaching Buddhism. The archaic Chinese statues have very solid figures and beatific smiles, not unlike archaic Greek statues. Many of these characteristics continued during the politically divided era of the Six Dynasties (3rd to 6th centuries CE), and into the Tang Dynasty. (F. Lanier Graham)

This is the Future Buddha Maitreya on an altar. He stands on a lotus base, suggesting that he is in heaven. The Buddha Shakyamuni is on earth and either sits or stands on a simple throne. The right hand is raised in the abhaya mudra, a gesture of protection and reassurance. The left hand holds a flask of water. Maitreya, a Boddhisatva, was popular in Chinese Buddhism as no relics were associated with him.

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Naga Buddha

20th Century | Thailand | Bronze | 3.25 x 3.25 x 3”

This Naga Buddha consists of two pieces: Cobra in the form of the Bodhi tree and the Buddha figure. The word “naga” is Sanskrit for cobra. In a Buddhist tradition, the snake that shelters the Buddha is named Mucilanda. While the Buddha was meditating, a great storm appears. Mucilanda, the king of serpents, emerges to protect the Buddha, who is the protector of everyone. When the storm stops, the snake assumes a human form, bows to the Buddha and returns to his home. This particular representation is found in Burma, Laos and Thailand.
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Garuda Standing Phurpa

20th Century | Tibet | Bronze | 11.75 x 6 x 3”

Garudas appear in many forms in Tibetan art, but they are most commonly depicted with the upper torso and arms of a man and the head, beak, and legs of a bird. Garuda is man bird, an enlightened deity for removing afflictions caused by nagas and earth spirits. In the Buddhist Pantheon, he may serve as the vehicle for Amoghsiddhi. He is almost always represented as human, except for large wings, which fold out from his shoulders.

According to his biography, the 8th century Buddhist mystic Padmasambhava introduced the phurba to Tibet, where it is used to ceremonially to remove the obstacle of duality, as well as in exorcisms. He wielded one when he founded the first Tibetan monastery in Samye.

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Ganesha Phurpa

20th Century| Tibet | Bronze | 13 x 2.5 x 2.5”

The elephant-headed deity of wisdom, Ganesha is associated with the removal of obstacles. Although his origins in Tibet go back to traders from India, the Ganesha of Buddhism has little in common with the god worshiped by Hindus. The phurpa is described as a "sky dagger," a powerful tool used to symbolically destroy obstacles to one's practice.

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Masks are used to represent sacred powers in the rituals and ceremonies in tribal and indigenous religions. In a recent interview, F. Lanier Graham reflects upon the masks in the collection:

The magic of a mask of course, is that when you put it on, you become somebody else. And the gender story is interesting because almost all masks were made for men, but there are some that were made by and for women. And we've got some very good ones in the collection.

The purpose of becoming somebody else is to become someone higher than you usually are. Okay. So you're self-lifting. The ritual is propelling you from ordinary consciousness to higher consciousness. Very often you become the deity himself or herself when you're doing the dance of that deity to bring forth protection for the children or a good crop.


Mende, Bundu Helmet Mask

20th Century | Africa |Wood | 15 x 7 x 10”

This mask from the Mende or Bundu people of Sierra Leone and Liberia represents Sowe, a spirit emerging from smooth silty river bottoms. In these countries the pan-ethnic Sande women’s society organized initiation rituals for young girls in which they were taken to remote areas and instructed in the transition to womanhood. The rituals included music and dancing, with an elder female wearing this type of helmet mask on top of her head, her body covered in long raffia, and her arms in long loose fabric sleeves.

The Sowe spirit comes from the silky bottoms of rivers and lakes. On display, it has no spiritual power or presence. Its power occurs when it is accompanied by music and dance, used to instruct through its shiny black surface, idealized ornate hairstyle, small closed mouth, and downcast eyes.

The masks were made by men, but they are part of the only known masquerade tradition in which the masks were worn by women. This ritual may be an ongoing practice. (Brooklyn Museum, and Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY).

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Large Songe Mask

20th Century | Congo, Africa |Wood | 18 x 11 x 8”

The mask in the Songye is a "kifwebe." These masks represent protective forces used to protect from external threats. The masks are designed differently for men and women. With males, masks are more representative of aggressiveness and may feature red, associated with blood, courage and danger. Female masks represent positive forces and are used mainly in dances performed at night, such as during lunar ceremonies.

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Guro Mask

20th Century | Ivory Coast, Africa | Wood, | 29.5 x 7 x 5”

The Guro (or Gouro), a southern Mande-language group in the central part of Côte d’Ivoire. They are known for their rich masquerade traditions. The Guro distinguish between “forest” or sacred masks endowed with powers, and profane “amusement” masks. Nevertheless, all Guro masks are designated by the generic term yu, power. Women are allowed to see only the amusement masks. Among the Guro amusement masks is the Zamble family, which includes the mythical antelope-leopard male Zamble, his beautiful wife Gú and Zàùlì, the wild and grotesque brother of Zamble.

Zàùlì masquerades are common at funerals. The best-known form of the Zàùlì mask is Flali, ‘village woman’, a woman’s face ornamented with a bird representing a beloved woman who has died too young, and whose inconsolable widowed husband wants to see her reproduced in image and dance. Flali used to be danced by women in certain villages but is now danced by men.

Source: Claudie Haxaire, “The Power of Ambiguity: the Nature and Efficacy of the Zamble Masks Revealed by ‘Disease Masks’ Among the Gouro People (Côte d’Ivoire),” Journal of the International African Institute 79, no. 4 (2009): 543-569.

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Kanaga Mask, Dogon

20th Century | Mali, Africa | Wood | 37 x 22 x 5”

Scholars record that the Dogon masks such as this one called kanaga, are worn primarily at dama, a collective funerary rite held periodically for Dogon men. The goal of the ritual is to ensure the safe passage of the spirit of the deceased to the world of the ancestors. The ceremony is organized by members of Awa, a male initiation society with ritual and political roles within Dogon society. As part of the public rites related to death and remembrance, Awa society members are responsible for the creation and performance of the masks.

References: Kate Ezra, “Art of the Dogon: Selections From the Lester Wunderman Collection,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1988

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Dan gle Mask

20th Century | Liberia, Africa | Wood, Fabric, Cloth, Hair | 15 x 9 x 5”

The Dan people comprise a West Affrican ethnic group in northwest Cote D'Ivoire and northeast Liberia. Dan masks are made and used by all-male secret associations for rituals, education, social control, and entertainment. Masks were thought to embody the most powerful of spirit forces called gle. Each gle has its own character as a means of bringing control and order to village life. The gle masks were worn and danced by male members of secret societies with initiation, leadership, and ritual roles.

This mask is carved from one piece of wood; a shirt or dress with a pocket still intact covers the back. The headdress is made of balls of rug or burlap covered with fabric. Straw and animal hair frame the lower part of the face.

It may represent a Tanka-gle with its mouth and teeth open. Tanka-gle are seen as gentle, good-humored, and amusing. They appear before dignitaries to sing and recite proverbs asking for Divine blessings on communities. Unlike the female Dean-gle, the Tanka-gle and other male masks have open mouths. The masks are part of full-body costumes.

This mask was formerly identified as We (Kran) mask. We is a general term that ethologists have used to group all the forest tribes in this area, of which the Dan are a part.

Sources: Jessica Feinstein, “Art, Out of Africa,” Yale Daily News (January 30, 2004), B1, ill.

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Punu Okuyi Mask

20th Century | Gabon, Africa | Wood | 15.5 x 8.5 x 7”

The Punu (or Bapunu) are a Bantu meta-ethnicity of Central Africa, one of the four major peoples of Gabon and some areas of the Republic of Congo. The Punu live in independent villages divided into clans and families, united through a secret society known as moukoudji which regulates community life and applies itself to the neutralization of evil forces. The moukoudji utilize statuettes, human relics, and masks in dances.

Punu are matrilineal and venerate the 'first' female ancestor, the mukaukila , in ceremonies, song, and dance with the okuyi (pl. mekuyo) 'white masks' of the mwiri male initiation society. These masks are believed to harness the powers of female ancestors, and are worn and danced by men in communal rites such as funerals, youth initiations, and births.

The okuyi mask may be worn by stilt performers from the mwiri society during ritual ceremonies, to request spiritual intervention in the hunt for malicious forces by dancing on stilts as tall as nine feet, holding fly-whisks, and dressed in costumes of plant fibers.

Okuyi white-faced masks typically feature scarification patterns on the forehead in groups of nine squares in a diamond formation. Punu masks represent idealized female ancestors' faces with the white facial color symbolizing peace, spirits of the dead, and the afterlife. The okuyi mask features protruding pursed lips, globular protruding eyes incised with a curve, a high-domed forehead, and characteristic rigid high coiffures reflecting Punu women's hairstyles. The masks often have an Oriental expression, but no such influence has been established.

Sources: Dinesh Sathisan, "The Ideal Beauty of the Punu Okuyi" (March–April 2011), 17; Barbara Thompson, “The African Art Collection at the Hood Museum of Art,” African Arts 37, no 2 (Summer 2004):28-9.

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While their height is a common characteristic, each sculpture provides insight into the sacred practices and beliefs of their creators, as well as the universal elements of religion. This grouping emerged when F. Lanier Graham designed the physical Spirit-Matter exhibition scheduled for the summer of 2020. These sculptures were to be displayed in front of the art wall on the main floor of the library. The exhibition was canceled due to the pandemic.


MOBA: Ancestor Figure

19th/20th Century | Tanganyika Province, Congo | Wood | 27 x 12 x 12”

Sacred figures such as this one were made by the Moba people who live in Togo on the west coast of Africa between Ghana and Benin. They are no longer made. According to oral tradition, they could only be carved by those whose fathers were shamans. The small ones were for private shrines in every household as a way of having direct access to the primal spiritual power of divinity. The larger ones stood in the heart of the family compound as a shrine to recent ancestors who needed to be consulted from time to time. The most elemental figures have no gender. The larger ones have female characteristics which means they are images of ancestral figures rather than the primal divinity. The faceless character of the most simple ones remind many of the "Goddess of Willendorf."

Indeed, it is generally accepted that all art began in Africa, because that is where the first humans lived. It is possible that both sculptures are from approximately the same era, not in terms of when they were fabricated but in terms of when the form was first conceived. In fact, the African work could be a good deal older as an iconic image, and might even have served as a prototype for the European image. This is only a theory, of course, but theories of this type are worth considering as we learn more about how and when our ancestors left Africa and populated the rest of the planet with their families, their art, and their ideas of spirituality. (F. Lanier Graham)

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Misingi, Ancestral Spirit Figure

20th Century | Madang Province, Papua New Gunea | Wood | 34.5 x 4 x 3”

This ancestral spirit figure from Papua New Guinea, carved from hardwood, has opposing curved projections surrounding the face. The body has quite thin arms, resting on the hips, and the legs are apart. The surface is blackened.

Ancestor figures are very common in the tribal world where departed ancestors are thought to be very much alive in another reality. As a rule, the ancestors can influence current events, for better or for worse. They are happy to receive gestures of love or at least respect. Some ancestors are loved; some are feared. In either case, offerings are made. (F. Lanier Graham)

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Sepik River Ancestor

20th Century | Papua New Gunea | Wood, fiber, hair | 27 x 9 x 5”

Sepik River Ancestors (Kandimbong) are male and found in the Murik Lakes and lower Sepik River region of Papua New Guinea. They represent either clan founders or heroes from their past . The marks on the chest and shoulders represent initiation marks.

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Rhythm Pounder/Boundary Stomper

20th Century | Senufo, Ivory Coast | Wood | 67 x 7 x 7”

These tall wooden carvings are usually female. They are used in different ways in ceremonies conducted by the Poro Society of the Senufo people on the Ivory Coast. For some ceremonies, they are pounded into the ground creating a rhythm for the dancers, "rhythm pounders," and for others, gathered into the center. The statues were used to commemorate ancestors, adolescent rite of passage initiations and funeral ceremonies. In rare cases, there are a pair of female and male statues, which represents the primordial couple.

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Dogon: Nommo Figure

19th/20th Century | Mali, West Africa |Wood | 41 x 18 x 8”

The best known Androgyne figures in all of Africa were carved by the Dogon in Mali. This excellent example is filled with male/female symbolism. The genitalia are male, the breasts are female. The spoon in front symbolizes ideal womanhood; the quiver in back symbolizes ideal manhood. The beard represents both. The stool is made of a round top, symbol of the sky god, and the four legs of the earth goddess. The Dogon came to Mali from the east, probably the Sudan, just south of Egypt. Curiously, their mythology has much in common with that of Bronze Age Egypt. One of their myths is very close to the myth of the Isis/Osiris.

The Dogon creator god is a self-created sky god called Amma (Ammo) who created the world with the vibrations of his words. He mated with the earth goddess to produce Nommo, who is the primary focus of Dogon worship. Nommo and the bisexual paired offspring of Nommo were self-fertilizing Androgynes who produced the Dogon people and taught them how to live. Dogon rituals celebrate the mutual respect of the genders for each other and for their shared cosmic Androgyny. (F. Lanier Graham)

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Nkisi Nkondi, Power Figure

20th Century | Zaire/Congo | Wood, Nails | 24 x 9 x 9”

Nkisi means "medicine," not in the conventional sense but in the metaphysical sense. When the sculptor is ready, a shaman (nganda) places gris-gris (power material) inside it, e.g. roots, leaves, horns, which are filled with special energy by the shaman, Then the power object can be used in a number of ways, e.g., a healing figure would have a nail driven in with each prayer for health. Nails are also driven to "activate" the object for ritual use. The open hand of this figure used to hold a knife. (F. Lanier Graham)

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Walking Buddha, Sukhothai

15th/16th Century | Thailand | Bronze | 21 x 6 x 5”

This bronze Walking Buddha, Sukhothai from north-central Thailand, is dated to the bronze 15th–16th centuries. An early Thai culture called Dvaravati, who practiced Buddhism, formed in the 7th century possibly under the influence of the great Indian center of Nalanda. Their art shows influence from Gupta India. Khmer influence started in the 10th century and became dominant in the 11th and 12th centuries. After freeing themselves from the Khmer, the Sukhothai style began to develop in the 13th century and continued through the 14th and 15th centuries and has been replicated ever since. In this civilization, Hindu deities were respected but Buddha was always primary.

The great Sukhothai invention was the freestanding walking Buddha. Walking meditation is an important part of Theravada Buddhism. These Buddhas are more graceful than any ordinary human being could ever be. The androgynous form is a teaching in itself on the integration of opposites. The lines are extremely fluid. The tiny fingertips transition from the material world to the invisible world. The body seems to be swaying under the gentle pressure of a sweet wind. (F. Lanier Graham)

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Chinese Shamanic God-King

1200 BCE (replica) |China | Bronze | 42 x 15 x 16”

This impressive figure is a king, shaman, god or all three. He stands on an elephant head. The bronze statue is a reproduction of a larger one (8 1/2 feet tall) that was uncovered at Sanxingdui ("three star mound"), which is 25 miles from the Sichuan capitol Chengdu. Scholars guess that he is holding either a jade cong or an elephant tusk, as both were found in the archeological dig. One of the most important finds in the 20th century, the site yielded jades, bone, pottery, elephant tusks, and large bronzes. The pits where these objects were found, may represent a decommissioning of sacred materials after a disaster (floor or earthquake) or an invasion. No forms of writing were found. While bronze vessels and objects were made in other locations in China during this period, this culture featured these bronze human figures. The GTU collection contains additional objects (replicas) from this culture. For information on the find see, click here. For additional bronzes, click here.

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The GTU Sacred World Art Collection includes artifacts used in ceremonies, objects for devotion, other sacred or religious related items, and models of sacred architecture. Three-dimensional objects can be touched and more closely observed to enhance the study of the spiritual idea or practice that is represented. Here are examples from different cultures and religions.

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Hodegetria Icon

16th century | Eastern Europe | Egg tempera on wood | 9.75 x 6.5 x 0.75

Hodegetria (“she who points the way”) icon with the Theotokos ("the God-bearer," Mary) holding child Jesus. Mary points toward Jesus as the way; Jesus' right hand is raised with index and middle fingers pointed in a blessing. There are starburst images on Mary's right shoulder and on the forehead area of her mantle; she has a frontal gaze with her head tilted slightly toward Jesus. Letters at the top in Greek MP-OY (Mater Theouo/Mother of God), and over Jesus figure IX-XZ, which is a widely used Christogram, the traditional four-letter abbreviation of the Greek words for "Jesus Christ," the first and last letters of each of the words "ΙΗSΟΥS ΧΡΙSΤΟS.”

The icon of the Hodegetria was the famous protectress of the city of Constantinople. Her iconographic type is widely disseminated throughout the Orthodox oikoumene reflecting the miraculous nature of the now lost original.

Considered a prayer in picture form and a spiritual door, icons began as simply an image and became an essential part of Orthodox services and personal devotion and veneration.

According to F. Lanier Graham, during the 19th century, this icon was part of the domestic altar of his Great-Grandmother Mary Theodora Browne Lanier and then part of the domestic altar of Grandmother Alberta Benton Mankin Lanier.

Gift of Graham in honor of Jane Daggett Dillenberger. At her memorial service in 2015 this icon, which Professor Dillenberger dearly loved, was named the "Jane Daggett Dillenberger Madonna."

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Shabti Reclining

664-332 BCE | Egypt | Faience | 6.5 x 0.5 x 0.75”

Shabti are Egyptian funerary figures placed in tombs among other grave goods. They were intended to act as servants for the deceased, in case manual labor was required in the afterlife. Originally, they may have replaced sacrificial victims. Produced in the thousands, shabti are among the most common artifact from that time.

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Golden Pavillion Kinkaku-ji (Model)

20th Century | Japan | Bronze Plated Tin | 11 x 8.25 x 7”

The Golden Pavilion, Kinkaku-ji in Kyoto, Japan, temple and site are a modern-day marvel. Originally built in 1397 as a retirement home for the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (r. 1368-1394/5 CE), the residence was converted into a Rinzai Zen Buddhist temple after his death in 1408. It has been destroyed and rebuilt at least three times, the last one in 1950, when it was intentionally burned down by a novice monk. The bronze phoenix (meaning divine favor, virtue, and harmony) survived the fire as it was offsite being repaired. Since 1994, Kinkaku-ji has been designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site .

The Japanese website (https://bit.ly/39XtAl6) provides this observation:
"Unlike the gardens in Christianity, the gardens of Buddhist temples are backed by a Buddhist worldview, and along with the temples and temples, the gardens represent a Buddhist worldview. By visiting the temple and staying in the environment, you will be able to experience the Buddhist world more convincingly than the law and sermons…The visit to Kinkakuji Temple has been established as a unique means of missionary work due to the efforts of the people involved in Kinkakuji Temple and the achievements of its long history."

For additional information see here. Literature: The Temple Of The Golden Pavilion, Yukio Mishima, 2010.

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Wooden Effigy intersecting Covered Reed Basket

20th Century | Timor Island | Wood, Grass reeds | 10.5 x 4 x 4”

Tribal hand-woven reed grass lidded basket with a carved wood effigy figure on the top opening lid and bottom half of carved wooden body on the underside of the basket. This covered reed basket has a wooden-figure handle and legs that protrude from the bottom of the basket.

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Songye Fetish Figure

19th/20th Century | Congo, Africa | Wood, Shells, Fiber | 9.5 x 4 x 3.5”

Power figures are carved by the Songye, a people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for protection from witchcraft and evil and to promote fertility and success. The power of the figure is from their spiritual leader. Large ones were used to protect the community, while smaller ones protected a family. Other objects, such as shells and hair, are added to the figure, adding additional magical powers.

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Prayer Fan

20th Century | Native American | Feather, wood, suede, etc. | 20.5 x 5 x 1”

Prayer fans in different forms have been used by Native Americans to assist in the healing of the body and the spirit. The fans are made with feathers from different birds, with the intention of imbuing their specific spirit into the fan. In some rituals, the fan is waved to help send a specific prayer to the spirit world. In other rituals for physical ailments, the fan directs smoke from burning herbs to attract helpful spirits and direct the focus towards the location of the problem. Gift of Robert Caples (Longfoot).

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Crocodile Head Canoe Prow

20th Century | Papua New Guinea | Wood | 4 x 6 x 16”
This 20th century Papua New Guinean boat prow has been carved out of wood and features the head of a crocodile. Villagers in Papua New Guinea would adorn the prow, the front pointed part of their canoes, with such prows as they traveled the inland rivers, swamp lands, lagoons, and coastal regions of their territories. Papua New Guinea is a very rugged country with few roads, so their canoes were an essential mode of transportation.

According to the Seattle Art Museum, in describing a similar prow: "For Iatmul people, the river is their mother and a crocodile ancestor once carried Earth from the primeval ocean up on its back to create their island home. Sitting in a canoe with this prow, people rode on the back of a powerful creature to merge with a river with its many relatives." (https://bit.ly/39THe7v)

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