IMAGES AND THE BODY. South American Indian Religions

IMAGES AND THE BODY. South American Indian Religions








LINDSAY JONES. Macmillan Reference USA

 One of the few generalizations about religion that may be safely declared is that the practice of belief is always, in one way or another, a firmly embodied affair, transpiring in the medium of the human body. Even in the hands of the most zealously ascetic or scholastic adherents, religion’s deep register is the body that is denied, cloaked, disciplined, or scorned. In less repressive religious cultures, the body is celebrated as the vessel of memory, the bearer of social status, the medium of divine presence, and the richly adorned display of fecundity, transport, joy, or sexual union. The human body offers manifold possibilities to act as the medium of belief. Costume for ritual occasions such as prayer or recitation of holy writ shapes personal performance by investing the individual with the solemnity of public display. More permanent changes to the body, such as tattoos, make personal statements that link the individual to a variety of communities—some of them ethnic or racial, but also the associations of tattoo wearers linked through tattoo shops, clubs, newsletters, and magazines. Religious iconography, such as that displayed on the back of the woman shown here, operates across the lines of many subcultures. In addition to the decoration of the body itself, artists everywhere have made use of the human form in objects and images that allow endless permutations of meaning. The Luba people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo carve figural stools for the complex array of seating arrangements that structure the hierarchy of the privileged members of the Luba court. The stools consist of female figures (but can also be abstract forms) upholding the sitter, which is a male chief or a member of the royal court. The female body possesses the power of birth-giving and serves as the vessel containing the spirit of the king. Past kings remain invested in their stools. The features of the female figure, particularly the patterns of scarification, are material texts that encode royal history. Luba women are believed to hold the taboos and restrictions of kingship within their bodies and as such serve as the figures symbolically holding up the kings.

The material forms of religious practice are found to address all aspects of human embodiment. Four objects from South Pacific societies make this clear. Drumming is part of the liturgical life of peoples as far apart as Oceania, native North America, Africa, and Mongolia. As an accompaniment to song and dance, the drum helps to celebrate key ritual occasions, such as funerals or the completion of a house or canoe among peoples in Papua New Guinea. The steady beat of the drum structures chant and resonates through the body, harmonizing the group that sings clan songs, initiates youth, or performs the lamentation of burial. The drum is an instrument that evokes bodily participation in the social life of ritual. No less a part of ceremony is the painting of the body. Dishes such as the one reproduced here were used in Papua New Guinea to mix pigments. It has been suggested that since the figures on such dishes represent clan animals and ancestors, using them for the mixing of colors applied to the body may have been part of a ritual absorption of clan or ancestral spirits into the very body of the participant. On the island of New Zealand, richly carved objects were used to attend to other aspects of the body. A carved wooden bar, called paepae, may have been part of the ritualizing of excreting waste. It has been suggested that such a device was bitten by someone using a latrine as the final act of elimination, providing a cleansing of taboo caused by excretion. The Maori also used another type of carved device, the feeding funnel. It was forbidden for food to touch the lips of chiefs while they healed from the application of tattoos. The feeding funnel allowed the chief to eat semi-liquid food. The elaborately tattooed faces on the outside of the funnel may correspond to the power the funnel seeks to preserve in the tattooed face of the chief who ate with the funnel.

Religious practices mine the human body for its rich metaphorical significance. Olmec artists produced marvelous ceramic figures of infants , whose interpretation remains inconclusive, but which have been linked to funerary practices, shamanistic rites, and fertility ceremonies. For example, small figures shown in the care of old women have led some to believe that the infant figures helped shamans perform rites effecting cures or healthy births. Other forms of evidence associate the sculptures of infants with sacrificial rites that transformed the infants into rain and vegetation, thus procuring seasonal regeneration and agricultural fertility. One authority indicates that the ceramic figures themselves may have been used in such rites, or may represent the children who were sacrificed. In either case, infancy meant rebirth and the remarkable skills of Olmec artists at naturalistic rendition of the infant’s gesture and fleshy forms no doubt enhanced the efficacy of the rite. If images of infants could assist with the renewal of nature in ancient Olmec culture, a visual practice at the beginning of the Common Era among Egyptians sought to ensure an individual’s life after death. The practice involved affixing realistic portrayals of individuals to their mummified bodies in order for their spirits to recognize themselves and reside in the body after death. These portraits were commissioned during the lifetime of the individual and displayed at home, then used in the preparation of the body after death. This close association of image and body may have been incorporated into Christian practice, which found an important place for the relics of saints and martyrs. The fifteenth-century bust of Saint Margaret of Antioch recalls the early fourth-century saint who defeated a dragon, which is seen here lying docilely beneath her hand. She was martyred during the reign of Diocletian, one of the last pagan emperors of late antiquity. Now missing is the relic of the saint that occupied the compartment in the figure’s chest. Margaret’s dedication to assisting women in labor made her popular in the Middle Ages and the infantile size of the dragon may dramatize her power to soothe the pain of childbirth. Another martyred woman, Daphne, was portrayed by the artist Kiki Smith in a way that recalls the torture of Christian saints. According to Ovid, Daphne was metamorphosed into a laurel tree in order to be delivered from the amorous pursuit of Apollo. When she prayed “change and destroy the body which has given too much delight,” her human flesh changed to bark, limbs, and eaves (Ovid, Metamorphoses, bk. 1). Smith portrays the body of the helpless nymph crucified by her own wish. Although Ovid indicates that it was the malice of Cupid that inflicted love upon the chaste girl by piercing Apollo with his fated arrow, Daphne blames her body for inciting desire. Smith leaves us to wonder why the body of a woman suffers as the victim of the male assault of desire. By contrast, the Baroque sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini produced a virtuoso performance in marble in which the viewer is intended to marvel at the sensuous transformation of marble into flesh as well as marble into tree limbs and foliage, almost without pausing to consider the injustice done to Daphne. The violent stilling of desire occupies a great deal of religious energy. Hinduism, like Christianity, possesses a long-established ascetic tradition in which practitioners deny themselves physical comforts, dress, and possessions, and take only the least amount of nutrition, as in the case of the Indian Sādhu or holy man shown here. One of the oldest aspects of Christianity is mortification of the flesh. In the later Middle Ages and the early modern period, visual contemplation of Christ’s suffering was one of the primary forms of Christian spirituality. Following the Protestant Reformation, a reassertion of images of suffering—portraying Christ, his disciples, and the saints—were designed to invite devout viewers to direct their attention and devotion to the self-effacing merits of Christ and his martyred followers. At times this imagery was especially graphic in order to jolt viewers to attention and to elicit from them an empathic response accompanied by remorse and self-incrimination. The sacrifice and pain undertaken by Christ and the saints were the means of human salvation and were to be regarded with solemn gratitude.

                                                                                David Morgan (2005)

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