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Heaven and Hell: New Exhibition Explores Pure Land Buddhism

June 16, 2017

June 16 – September 10, 2017 

Pl. 18 detail statue copy
On June 16, the San Antonio Museum of Art will present Heaven and Hell: Salvation and Retribution in Pure Land Buddhism, the first exhibition in the U.S. to explore in detail one of the most popular forms of Buddhism throughout Asia. 

Featuring approximately 70 works—including paintings, sculpture, and decorative objects—the exhibition contrasts the visions of heaven and hell, ideas that are central to Pure Land Buddhism. Curated by Dr. Emily Sano, PhD, the Coates-Cowden-Brown Senior Advisor for Asian Art at the San Antonio Museum of Art, the exhibition features some of the most stunning examples of works created as part of the sect's devotional and funerary traditions. They are drawn from fifteen private collections and institutions across the country and world as well as the Museum’s own Asian collections. Heaven and Hell will be on view through September 10, 2017.

Originally developed in West Asia during the early years of the Common Era, Pure Land Buddhism spread across Central Asia to China and into Tibet, Korea, Japan, and Taiwan, pulling in and incorporating the gods and figures of local faiths in each new culture. One figure, Amitābha, the Buddha of the Western Paradise, remained at the center of the Pure Land faith, promising salvation in his heavenly paradise to anyone who simply calls his name. This promise of salvation and an escape from the pain of hell—even to those who led less than exemplary lives—helped Pure Land Buddhism flourish and expand throughout Asia. In contrast, the more traditional Theravada Buddhism held that nirvana could only be obtained through devout study and meditation.

Heaven and Hell provides a dynamic and in-depth view of Pure Land Buddhism, highlighting the way different cultures adopted and adapted the faith,” said Sano. “Its adherents found commonality in inspiration and devotion, while also contributing their local beliefs and imagery to the practice." The result is a richness of both religious narrative and imagery that makes for compelling viewing, including in rituals that continue to the present day.

The exhibition explores these different regional approaches, and the evolution of devotional art as Pure Land Buddhism moved eastwards across Asia. 

Lenders to the exhibition include the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Cleveland Art Museum, Minneapolis Institute of Art, Philadelphia Art Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, the Birmingham Museum of Art, and the Dallas Museum of Art. Curated by Emily Sano, PhD, the Coates-Cowden-Brown Senior Advisor for Asian Art at the San Antonio Museum of Art, and the former director of the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, the exhibition will also be accompanied by a catalog.

There is a $5 surcharge for those 18+ to view the exhibition. The exhibition surcharge will be waived on Friday evenings from 6:00–9:00 p.m. and visitors can enjoy special programming during those hours.

This exhibition is generously funded by the Theodore and Doris Lee Family Foundation, the Elizabeth Huth Coates Charitable Foundation of 1992, Dr. Robert Clemons, the Marcia & Otto Koehler Foundation, Thomas Edson, the Pilkington Anglo-Japanese Cultural Foundation, Allen Bennett, and Rosario Laird. This project is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.


Image: Bowing Buddha, 17th century, Japan, Edo period, 1600-1868, gild wood., h. 28 in.; w. 14 in.; d. 9 in., Property of Vanessa and Henry Cornell. Photography by Ylva Erevall Photography.