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Marcel Nies

3. Vishnu
India; Madhia Pradesh
10th century
height 67.5 cm


Vishnu is one of the principal gods of Hinduism; as preserver he is the embodiment of the quality of mercy and goodness, the self-existent, all pervading power which preserves and maintains the universe and the cosmic order (Dharma). To accomplish his task, he takes a number of incarnations, which he sends to earth endowed with a spirit of self-sacrifice and devotion. Varaha is Vishnu's third incarnation and is depicted at his right, in the top corner; taking the form of a boar, a water loving creature who creates the world out of the cosmic waters. The lion avatar Narasimha is Vishnu's fourth incarnation, depicted at his left, in the upper corner. His mission was to free the world from the destruction caused by the demon King Hiranyakasipu who had obtained from Brahma the boon of immunity from attacks by man, beast and god. In the shape of Narasimha, half man and half lion, Vishnu succeeded in destroying the demon.

Standing on a lotus throne, Vishnu is surrounded by a number of devotees and animals, and flanked by his two Saktis (female energy); Lakshmi the goddess of wealth and fortune and Bhu-Devi, the mother of the earth. Vishnu's four hands represent his fulfilment of manifestations in all forms of life; they represent the four directions of space, the four stages of human development, and the four aims of life- pleasure, success, righteousness, and liberation. His lower right hand makes the gesture of varada mudra, the pose conferring grace, charity and gift bestowing. The god's lower left hand is holding a sankha, the symbol of the origin of the five cosmic elements; with this conch shell he raises a deafening noise to terrify the enemy and to marshal his own forces. The gada or mace is the power of knowledge; this long club is carried by the god as a weapon of attack. The cakra is the symbol of the mind, a circular discus which Vishnu hurled at his enemies to destroy them. He is adorned with a karanda mukuta, ear ornaments, a necklace, bracelets. anklets, ornaments and a jaynopavita, the holy Brahmical cord. At the top is a depiction of garland bearing apsaras; they hold a protecting umbrella above the god's head.

Carved out of fine sandstone, this work of art is a good example for the mediaeval schools of sculpture during the Chandella occupation. This ethnic group had a strong cultural, political and imperial influence and ruled in central India from the 10th until the 12th century. Of the eighty-five temples constructed by the Chandella kings, only twenty have survived, including the famous temples of Khajuraho, to astonish the world with their unearthly beauty and sensuality. Characteristics for this style are the construction of the piece, the pronounced arched eyebrows, and the style of the ornaments. The shape of the karanda mukuta and the proportions of the central image are typical for the early Chandella style dating from the 10th century.

Vishnu is represented as a powerful and convincing god with lively facial expression. His monumental appearance reveals a restrained power and tension and contrasts beautifully with the movements of the smaller images surrounding him. With striking composition, fine detailing and deep relief carving, the piece can be placed among the best examples known of its kind, reflecting its iconographical meaning in a superb manner.

Formerly in the collection of Mrs. Macken, Belgium.

all text, images © Marcel Nies

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