Frieze with Vishnu
Unknown artist, Indian, Kerala
Frieze with Vishnu, ca. 1600s
88.9 x 139.7 x 10.2 cm (35 x 55 x 4 inches)
Museum purchase: gift of the Museum Associates 85.199
About the work
This wooden relief sculpture depicts the god Vishnu, elaborately adorned and accompanied by Sarasvati and Lakshmi. One of the three major gods of Hinduism, along with Shiva and Brahma, Vishnu is known for his benevolence and capacity to preserve and protect the order of the universe. Strict iconographic guidelines and artistic conventions prescribe how Vishnu and his consorts are depicted in Hindu religious imagery; nevertheless, variations in style and appearance in ancient and contemporary representations exist across India and the Indian subcontinent as well as around the world.
Vishnu is often shown seated or reclining on Shesha, the great immortal snake of the universe, represented in this sculpture as a seven-headed cobra above Vishnu’s head. Each of Vishnu’s four hands holds a symbolic object: a conch shell, which refers to the divine sound of om; a round disk, the chakra, to evoke the purified spiritual mind and the order of the universe; a club or baton that is symbolic of spiritual, mental, and physical strength; and a lotus blossom representing spiritual liberation. Together these symbols suggest the range of Vishnu’s powers.
Although it has faded here, blue paint originally was applied Vishnu’s skin, distinguishing him from the other figures. Several explanations exist for why his skin was painted blue. Traditionally, Vishnu is associated with water and the sky, and blue was used for figures who were thought to have deep character, determination, bravery, and the ability to fight difficult or evil situations. A large crown, golden jewelry, and a loincloth convey Vishnu’s beauty and regal presence. He is flanked by the two smaller, almost identical figures, his consorts Sarasvati and Lakshmi, who both hold lotus buds.
This sculptural fragment was originally placed above the doorway of a temple in Kerala, one of 29 states along India’s southwestern coast. The sculpture welcomed devoted members coming to pray at the temple. Hindus believe Vishnu is the preserver of the universe’s order. Vishnu carries out his responsibilities by descending to earth when needed in the form of one of his 10 avatars. An avatar is the manifestation of a god in human or animal form. Through these forms, Vishnu protects humans and maintains dharma, the order of the universe. There is a story in which Vishnu, in human form, recovered the agrarian region of Kerala from the sea. For this reason, many of the temples in this region of South India feature friezes of Vishnu enthroned. As the most powerful Hindu gods, Vishnu, Shiva, and Brahma have their own dedicated followers; the religious sect within Hinduism dedicated to the worship of Vishnu in his 10 forms is known as Vaishnavism. Each religious sect dedicated to a particular god has its own initiations and customs.
This sculpture is one example in a long tradition of depictions of Hindu gods that first appeared in the ancient civilization in India that came to prominence during the Gupta Empire (ca. 320–550 CE). During this period, Hindu culture was established and many other innovations came about. It was also during this time that the visual art of several religions—including Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity—developed. Monumental stone representations of Vishnu dating from this time still exist, while works carved in wood began to appear around the 13th century.
Look closely at the shape of the fragment and positions of the figures. What clues about the sculpture suggest that it was intended to be seen by worshippers looking up as they passed through the entrance to a temple?
What are the similarities and differences between the two figures of the consorts and the figure of Vishnu? Why do you think the sculptor made the two female figures smaller in size than Vishnu? What might the practical and symbolic reasons have been?
This object still bears traces of pigment. What colors do you see? What might this tell us about the sculpture’s intended impact in the religious environment of the temple?
Compare this depiction of Vishnu with this one of Vishnu as Rama, which also includes Lakshmi and Sarasvati. What similarities and differences do you notice in the figures’ facial expressions and bodily forms, the carving style, and the overall mood these sculptures? What might they suggest about the relationships between sacred sculpture and religious worshippers?
Sketch the symbolic objects—the chakra, the conch shell, the baton, and the lotus blossom—held by Vishnu and discuss the powers associated with each of them. How do you think seeing these objects affected Hindu worshippers? What do Vishnu’s powers suggest about what is valued in Hinduism?
The carving emphasizes the figures’ powerful physical forms and their hand gestures, which are known as mudras. These representations are related to sacred dance forms which are sometimes performed in special halls near temples. To better understand the power of mudras, as well as the positions of the figures in the sculpture, have students watch a few clips from a dance about the 10 avatars of Vishnu. The dance for each avatar is paired with a narrative description that you can print out and share. After students have watched some videos, ask them to look back at the sculpture. In small groups, have them compare the figures in the sculpture with the videos. What do they notice about the gestures and movements in each? How might watching the dance affect a worshipper differently than viewing the sculpture? What are the advantages of each of these forms?
Vishnu is known for appearing in a form appropriate for the urgent situation he needs to address. To further explore Vishnu’s varied iconography, look at these other representations. First consider this 19th-century painting of Vishnu and Lakshmi, then study this 14th-century bronze sculpture of Vishnu overcoming the serpent Kaliya. Ask students to write about which of Vishnu’s powers these works embody, and how?
To get a sense of the architectural setting this sculptural fragment might originally have existed, ask students to look up Indian temples dedicated to. One example is the Dashavatara Temple in Deogarh. Students can start their research here.
Hinduism has a complex history that consists of many diverse traditions, philosophies, and customs. Billions of people throughout the world today practice Hinduism, the third-largest religion. Where is your nearest Hindu community located? To learn more about the customs and practices of Hinduism, conduct some research about the communities near you. Is there one or more Hindu god, perhaps Vishnu, Shiva, or Brahma, who is the focus of individual or community devotion? What can you learn about which representations are most significant? Consider arranging a visit to a Hindu temple to study the representations there, or learning more about an upcoming holiday and how Hindus in your area will celebrate it.
Devdutt Pattanaik. Vishnu: an Introduction. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1999.
Pratapaditya Pal. Indian Sculpture: 700–1800. Los Angeles County Museum of Art: University of California Press, 1989.
On Vishnu and Krishna and on Hinduism in South Asia from Asian Art Museum: http://education.asianart.org/explore-resources/video/vishnu-and-krishna