- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 15, 2001

Central Asia's fabled Silk Road exploded with trade, religion and art as early as 1000 B.C. when the Han dynasty emperor Wu Di initiated trade over the route. China and Rome were the two superpowers that benefited from what was not really a road but a shifting web of caravan routes between remote kingdoms and oasis trading towns.
Two important Silk Road hubs were Antioch, considered one of the great cities of the Roman Empire and the early Christian world, along with the seaport town of Seleucia Pieria, and the remote Central Asian oasis city of Kucha with the adjacent Buddhist rock-cut cave site of Qizil (also Kizil).
Two exhibitions, "The Cave as Canvas: Hidden Images of Worship Along the Silk Road" at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington and "Antioch: The Lost Ancient City" at the Baltimore Museum of Art, show the fascinating connections and disparities of art from an area spread over 4,000 miles and a period of more than 1,500 years — and the detective work still in process along the trans-Asian road. The exhibits of high-quality art give new meaning to the word "provincial."
A hybrid Hellenistic-based style traveled thousands of miles from the Mediterranean world to deep inside China. Antioch, now in Turkey near the Syrian border, and Seleucia Pieria were poised on the edge of the Mediterranean ready to ship silks, furs, ceramics and lacquer unloaded from Chinese caravans to ships bound for Rome and Alexandria. Early trading expeditions along the route carried gold, glass, amber, woolens and ivory.
The arts of Antioch and Qizil are richly decorated ones that reflect considerable wealth and rich patrons. The "Antioch" catalog tells us that "The Roman emperor Julian called Antioch a 'gay and prosperous city.'" It was also the headquarters of military campaigns for six centuries.
Floor mosaics in the Hellenistic style such as the "Drinking Contest of Herakles and Dionysus" and the many depictions of Dionysus, the god of wine, show a love of drinking and dining. Attendance at chariot races, Olympic games, circuses and the theater also demonstrate an ebullient and sensuous way of life. Aqueducts, tunnels and dams channeled the plentiful waters for agriculture and to the cherished baths.
Antioch's energy as a melting pot of cultures and faiths was even more important. Greeks, Jews, Syrians, Romans and Christians and visitors from other places lived there. Paul visited in the first century to help convert the residents and establish the first Gentile Christian community.
Qizil is the largest surviving Buddhist cave complex in Chinese Central Asia with more than 250 caves standing and 135 still mostly intact. Monks and wealthy patrons worshipped there. Kucha had gained wealth and importance from its crossroads location. It was a significant kingdom and trading center from the third to seventh centuries along the northern Silk Road, about half-way between Antioch and Xian. Seventh-century Kucha was instrumental in transmitting Buddhism to China with its more than 100 monasteries and 5,000 disciples.
Hellenistic styles traveled to Kucha — the name means "red" in Turkic, possibly from the rust-colored soil — along with Ghandaran, Persian and Indian ones.
The fragment of "Two Assemblies" in the Sackler exhibit came from German expeditions to Central Asia in the early 1900s. They described the wall paintings from Qizil as probably their richest find. "The paintings were the finest we found anywhere in Turkestan, consisting of scenes from the Buddha legend, almost purely Hellenistic in character," wrote Albert von Le Coq, one of the German archaeologists, according to Peter Hopkirk's book "Foreign Devils on the Silk Road."
The fragment of "Two Assemblies," originally from the left wall of Cave 224, preserves part of two sermon scenes and mixes several styles. The people look in different directions to where there would have been the Buddha. (The Germans stripped the cave, one of the larger ones, bare.) Several are painted with Hellenistic long faces and aquiline noses.
The artisans painted an unclothed woman, possibly the beautiful Shrimati, loved by a Buddhist monk, who dances in front of a group of monks and followers listening to the Buddha. She died, and the Buddha used the story to demonstrate the impermanence of Earthly desire.
Several of the women are dark-skinned, a convention brought from India. The painters used the brilliant blues and greens original to Kuchean art for the main figures and reds and blues for celestial beings. They outlined the figures in red.
The artisans showed an emaciated monk with protruding ribs in the right panel. Guest curator Andrew Leung points out that the delineation of the ribs is not quite right. "This was a stylized kind of painting with stock compositions in man-made caves. A master artist probably directed several artisans," he says.
"Visiting the caves with their brilliant colors was supposed to be a transforming experience. Worshippers carried torches that gave out flickering light for viewing the caves that were completely covered on the inside, except for the floors," Mr. Leung says.
He believes a master artist painted "Three Figures," another fragment from cave 224. The figures are carefully detailed realistic portraits of three men, though no portrait tradition existed in Kuchan. One is Chinese, another Central Asian and a more elaborate monk wears strands of jewelry.
The expertise in portraiture possibly could have come from the Roman-style portraits exhibited in the Antioch show. A portrait such as that of the empress Julia Domna in bronze (circa 200) carries a long tradition. The Romans' desire for the particularizing and descriptive went together with keeping wax masks of their ancestors in their homes. The portraits have no parallels in Greek art.
The empress seems extraordinarily alive with an alert expression and carefully modeled features. The sculptor modeled Julia with head tilted sideways. He parted her hair in the middle, and it descends in tubular waves on both sides of her face in a hairdo popular in the Severan period.
Her face reflects those of the women in the "Floor Mosaic of a Funerary Banquet" mounted behind her. The scenes were common for Roman tomb decorations.
Mosaics are the high points of the exhibition, especially since archaeologists excavated about 300 at Antioch. Mosaics, usually executed in the Hellenistic tradition, covered floors throughout the Roman Empire. Homeowners lavished large sums on grand mosaic floors that showed their knowledge of Greek mythology and created a luxurious impression.
Artisans used the Greek gods Dionysus and Aphrodite in their work .But at Antioch, situated on the Orontes river, they used mythological scenes that incorporated watery sights and personifications of river and marine deities.
The exhibit's reconstruction of the mosaic floor of the Atrium House dining room — from Antioch's wealthy suburb of Daphne — shows the preoccupation with the gods at Antioch. The curators reunited five mosaics from the room, including the "Drinking Contest of Herakles and Dionysus," for the first time since the 1932 excavation.
Mosaics trace the change in Antioch from a pagan society to a Christian one. Peacocks were a symbol of Christianity and there's a magnificent "Floor Mosaic With Peacocks and Basket of Grapes."
The exhibitions give visitors a taste of the Antioch and Qizil crossroads cultures, but Mr. Leung says much still needs to be excavated at Qizil. The site, about 40 miles from Kucha, is remote and the Chinese need further funding.
The European countries and the United States that sent archaeological teams to the "lost" city of Antioch held high hopes. Classical and early Christian texts gave the expectation of unearthing major sites, such as the octagonal Church of Constantine.
Instead the archaeologists, whose expedition started in 1932, found the ruins of several private homes, churches and public baths. The most extraordinary discoveries were the mosaics from the second through the sixth centuries. Forces such as earthquakes, the capture and sacking of Antioch by Persian troops and Antioch's fall to Arab control had impeded more significant finds.
Syria, where Antioch was then located, claimed half of the treasures. The American participants — the Baltimore Museum of Art, Princeton University, the Worcester Art Museum, and the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University and its affiliate Dumbarton Oaks — received 30 percent of them. The Musees Nationaux de France acquired the remainder.
The Worcester museum organized the multimuseum tour, and Baltimore is the final venue.

WHAT: "The Cave as Canvas: Hidden Images of Worship Along the Silk Road"
WHERE: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave, SW
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 daily, except Dec. 25, through July 7, 2002
PHONE: 202/357-2700

WHAT: "Antioch: The Lost Ancient City"
WHERE: Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive at N. Charles and 31st streets
WHEN: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m weekends and until 8 p.m. the first Thursday of each month, through Dec. 30
TICKETS: $7 adults, $5 seniors (65 and older) and college students, free for members and those 18 and younger and the first Thursday of every month
PHONE: 410/396-7100
SPONSORS: Rockefeller Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities and the St. Gobain/Norton Co. In Baltimore, funding came from Bloomberg, the Dorothy Wagner Wallis Charitable Trust and Tony and Lynn Deering.

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