Nara to Norwich: an online exhibition about Buddhism and Christianity

By John Reeve

Explore Arts and Beliefs at the Ends of the Silk Roads. The Nara to Norwich website will continue to be updated until 2024 when a physical exhibition will be held in Norwich

This is an original online exhibition created by the Sainsbury Centre for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures at UEA Norwich. It compares the arrival of Buddhism in one offshore island, Japan, notably at the sacred site of Nara, with the arrival and re-arrival of Christianity in another offshore island, Britain, in places like Norwich. It is written in a direct style and features objects buildings and texts. It has a clear comparative structure and is well worth looking at. Here are some examples of the approach:

Discover how religions adapt

Religions play a central role in the human story. Defining religion and how it has shaped the evolution of our species remain among our major intellectual challenges. The online exhibition offers a vision of the role of religion and art at a time of great change on a trans-continental scale, shaped by the collapse of the Roman, Kushan and Han empires. The exhibition makes the global accessible through personalised accounts and specific discoveries through stories and an exhibit database.

Origins: Discover the sources of Buddhism and Christianity through relief carvings

Arrivals: Learn how Buddhism arrived in Korea and Japan, and Christianity in NW Europe

As Buddhism and Christianity spread from their heartlands to the edges of the Eurasian continent, they introduced not only a new system of faith with new gods, but also a well-established material culture. Although there are later written accounts of conversions, they are not always apparent in the art and archaeology. Their influence can, however, be seen on the landscapes, aesthetics and cultures of the converted lands.

The Trumpington cross was discovered in the grave of a teenage girl who was also buried with a set of gold and garnet pins and who had been laid out on a wooden bed with carved decoration. Bed burial was a rare practice, usually given only to young women who were accompanied by other valuable grave goods, and so the manner of burial identifies her as a member of wealthy and important family—someone of the same background as the noble and royal abbesses who feature in Bede’s narrative. The cross is unusual: most known examples were worn suspended as pendants, but this one is unique in having been sewn to her clothing. It serves to show how Christian symbolism was expressed through the expert craft skills and costly materials favoured by nobility and royalty and marks her out as a member of an aristocratic family that had adopted the new religion.

Encounters: Investigate the conflicts and meetings between old and new gods

Other gods in Britain probably came from the Celtic tradition but have left fewer traces: for example, the foliate man found carved on the ceiling bosses of churches, such as at Norwich Cathedral

The abodes of the old gods, such as mountains, rocks, springs and trees, were often claimed for the temples and shrines of the new ones, as seen in Bulguksa in Korea. Sometimes the old gods were acknowledged and brought into the new pantheon, with carvings of the European foliate head —’Green Man’—for example, carved in newly erected Christian churches, or halls for the mountain god, Sansin, in Buddhist temples. In Japan, kami came to be represented as Buddhist clergy. While over time the old religions of Britain, Scandinavia and Korea faded, they never completely disappeared. Faith in the old gods of Japan continued and became more organised in response to Buddhism, resulting in what is now termed Shinto

There is also a comprehensive bibliography https://naratonorwich.org/bibliography/

One comment

  1. Sadly they haven’t done as much homework on pre-Christian Britain and the impact of Christianity as they have on pre-Buddhist Japan and the impact of Buddhism. The statement that church foliate heads show that “the old gods were acknowledged and brought into the new pantheon” couldn’t be further from the truth. The impact of Christianity on the indigenous (and Romanised) religions of Britain was totally different to that of Buddhism on what became known as Shinto. Buddhism managed a degree of compromise, so that there was an inter-penetrative continuity for both traditions, and Buddhism and Shinto could even be said to be partners in modern Japanese society. Christianity brooked no compromise and demonised the old gods, so that, despite the occasional saint who seems to have originated in a deity, there was a long discontinuity in Pagan practice in most of Europe. The ‘Green Man’ is a modern figure and the foliate heads in churches, whilst antecedents of that figure, have very different origins and meanings. See the Epilogue in Ronald Hutton’s new book, ‘Queens of the Wild: Pagan Goddesses in Christian Europe: An Investigation’, Yale U.P., 2022 (pp. 159-92), and my article at https://www.academia.edu/82494162/The_Green_Man_Rewilding_Religion .

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