LOTUS & THE CROSS: EAST-WEST CULTURAL EXCHANGE
ALONG THE SILK ROAD
exhibition presents photographs of early
Christian remains from Kerala in South India and Quanzhou in Fujian in
South China. The tombstones from Quanzhou belong to Christians of the
Church of the East who settled in South China during the Mongol Yuan
dynasty (1260-1368), while the crosses from Kerala belong to various
Syrian Christian communities, the earliest dated to the eighth century.
was the earliest Christian language used in Asia and it was Syriac-rite
Christians who first settled in China and India. There are written records
and inscriptions showing that between the fourth and seventh centuries
Christians from the Middle East undertook trade and missionary work using
the overland Silk Road to China and the maritime Spice Route to India.
The photographs show some of the surviving archaeological evidence for
this early Syrian Christian presence in South India and South China.
A common iconographic motif to be seen on the remains from both continents
is the mounting of the cross on the lotus flower.
The tombstones from South China and the crosses from South India show
considerable artistic adaptation and acculturation. The lotus flower
motif—with a long history in the Indian iconographic tradition—probably
reached China along the Silk Road with the introduction of Buddhism in
the early centuries of the Common Era. The earliest depiction of the
cross on the lotus in China is on the so-called “Nestorian” tablet of
781 housed in the Forest of Steles Museum in Xi’an, a complete rubbing
of which can be seen in the Del Santo Reading Room at the University
of San Francisco. The so-called “Persian crosses” of South India with
inscriptions in Middle Persian have been dated to the eighth or ninth
centuries. These crosses show a variation on the leafed-cross design
known from Christian art in Byzantium and the Middle East. The tall free-standing
crosses of Kerala appear to date from a later period, but they clearly
exhibit lotus petal designs on their pedestals. The combination of the
cross and the lotus in China and India symbolizes the meeting between
East and West like no other image has done.
The exhibition is part of
an Australian Research Council-funded project based in the Department
of Ancient History at Macquarie University, Sydney, which is researching
the epigraphy and iconography of these artifacts.
Photographer and Curator
Dr. Ken Parry