Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Face of Glory

Jade belt buckle, China, Han Dynasty, Length: 3 1/8 inches.

I recently purchased two exceptional jade belt pieces, which feature monster faces straight from your worst night mares.  Incredible quality, beautifully carved with incised surface decoration, they represent the best of Chinese archaic jade carving.  While the leading expert dates them the the Yuan, Ming period, 14th to 16th Century, another scholar, and myself, see them as Han Dynasty, somewhere before 0 B.C., or just after.  The Han Dynasty lasted for 400 years, from 206 B.C. to 220 A.D. with an interregnum at about from 9 to 23 A.D. when a regent took power as emperor, Wang Mang. Later jades, just do not have the quality and intensity you find in Archaic jades, which era ends with the Han Dynasty.  On the surface of both are incised lines of a type you find starting in the Eastern Chou through the Han Dynasty, but not after.  So to my mind, these are Han Dynasty.

Jade belt buckle, China, Han Dynasty, Length: 3 inches.

While apotropaic, intended to ward of evil, much as the Medusa head did for Athena, these heads brought to mind a story told in a book I've been reading and re-reading, Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization, by Heinrich Zimmer.  The book is pure poetry and so full of information that you cannot absorb its wisdom in one read.  I'll recount the tale as Zimmer wrote it and let the reader see if it fits the images above:

"There was once a great titan king called Jalandhara. By virtue of extraordinary austerities he had accumulated to himself irresistible powers.  Equipped with these, he had gone forth against the gods of all the created spheres, and, unseating them, had established his new order.  His humiliating government was tyrannical, wasteful, careless of the traditional laws of the universe, wicked and utterly selfish. In a tremendous and ultimate excess of pride, Jalandhara sent a messenger-demon to challenge and humble the High God himself, Shiva the creator, sustainer, and destroyer of the world.
.......This Rahu, then, was the demon sent by Jalandhara to humiliate the High God. It was at this time that Shiva was contemplating marrying his love, the Goddess Shakti, in the form of Parvati, the beautiful moon-like daughter of the mountain king. .... The challenge brought by the messenger, Rahu, was that Shiva should give up his shining jewel of a bride, "the Fairest Maiden in all of the Worlds," and without further ado turn her over to the new master of existence, the titan tyrant, Jalandhara.
The moment Rahu tendered Jalandhara's demand that the Goddess should be delivered to him - The Shakti of the universe to become the tyrant's principal queen - Shiva countered the colossal challenge. From the spot between his two eyebrows - the spot called "The Lotus of Command", where the center of enlightenment is located and the spiritual eye of the advanced seer is opened - the god let fly a terrific burst of power, which explosion immediately took the physical shape of a horrendous, lion-headed demon. The alarming body of the monster was lean and emaciated, giving notice of insatiable hunger, yet its strength was resilient and obviously irresistible. The apparition's throat roared like thunder; the eyes burnt like fire; the mane, disheveled, spread far and wide into space.
Rahu, was aghast.
Rahu, the messenger, was adept, however, in the techniques of supernatural power-politics. When the incarnate burst-of-wrath made a rush at him, he replied with the only possible remaining move: he took refuge in the all-protecting fatherhood and benevolence of the Almighty, Shiva himself. This created a new and very difficult situation; for the god immediately bade the monster spare the petitioner, and the half-lion was left with a painful hunger but no proper food on which to feast it. The creature asked the god to assign some victim on which the torment might be appeased. 
(In Indian mythology, from the Vedas down, this power-principle is constantly reiterated: whenever a demon, by command of a god, is forced, for one reason or another, to release its legitimate prey, some substitute must be provided...)
Shiva was equal to the occasion, he suggested that the monster should feed on the flesh of his own feet and hands. Forthwith, to this incredible banquet that incredible incarnation of blind voraciousness proceeded. Ravaged by its congenital hunger, it ate and ate. And having devoured not only its feet and hands, but its arms and legs as well, it was still unable to stop. The teeth went through its own belly and chest and neck, until only the face remained. .......
Shiva watched silently, but with supreme delight, the bloodcurdling, nightmarish procedure, and then, gratified by the vivid manifestation of the self-consuming power of his own substance, he smiled upon that creature of his wrath-which had reduced its own body, joint by joint, to the nothingness of only a face - and benignantly declared: "You will be known, henceforth, as "Face of Glory", and I ordain that you shall abide forever at my door.  Whoever neglects to worship you shall never win my grace.

In these monster faces I see the self devouring beast, reduced to its head, hungry still and ready to eat those that endanger the one wearing it.  Unfortunately, to my mind, Zimmer never tells the reader what becomes of the evil tyrant Jalandhara.  Rahu, his messenger is forgiven, but what became of the king?  One hopes that he set "Face of Glory" after him. 

You will find such monster faces throughout Chinese Buddhist sculpture, adorning a Bodhisattva, or a shrine, protecting the divine figures.

The colossal statue above, in the Metropolitan Museum, is from the Northern Zhou Dynasty, dating to about 580 A.D., and stands 4.2 meters, 13 feet 9 inches tall.  It's an amazing statue, and its measurements don't begin to convey how huge it seems when one is front of it. The detail relevant to this post however, is the central element of its elaborate jeweled harness, the demon mask.  Here the horrible monster protects the bodhisattva, in this case thought to be Kuanyin, the bodhisattva of compassion.

 Above is a detail of a shrine from the Northern Qi Dynasty, 550-577 A.D., where you see the monster face over the door with floral elements coming out of its mouth.  Another benevolent use of the monster.  

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