The Norton Simon Museum shows a muscular side of Buddhism

What comes to mind when you think of Buddhist art? A serene figure seated in a meditative pose, eyes closed, legs crossed, soles up? The Norton Simon Museum has many such examples in its collection, but the Pasadena institution's new exhibition, "Divine Demons: Wrathful Deities of Buddhist Art," offers something different.

The gods Mahakala and Hayagriva, seen in richly detailed sculptures and paintings, lash out at foes with several sets of arms and stomp them into submission. Divine as the deities may be, they are not just having a little rant on a bad day. They are doing their jobs -- protecting Buddhist faith with physical force and terrifying symbolism.

Adorned with human skulls and freshly severed heads, the snarling figures in the artworks bare their fangs, drink blood and wield axes and daggers. A bronze Hayagriva has eight legs, six arms and three faces, each crowned with a tiara of skulls and a wild mane of orange hair.

"Are these good people or bad people?" curator Christine Knoke asks, echoing a typical question from confused viewers. "They are really good guys. They are scary because they are chasing away evil spirits, bad thoughts and hindrances to enlightenment."

The 18 paintings, sculptures and ritual objects installed in the gallery at the foot of the stairs compose a tiny exhibition. But it makes a big point about a strain of Buddhist imagery prevalent in the Himalayas, particularly Tibet, the source of most of the objects. A painted wood ceremonial dagger, thought to have been used to exorcise evil influences and obstructions to Buddhism's expansion into Tibet, has a handle of angry faces, one of which seems to swallow a serpent slithering up the blade.

Some pieces in the show, which runs through March 8, 2010, were purchased for the museum by Norton Simon; others are gifts from friends of the institution. A 17th century mandala from Nepal, on view for the first time, came from Simon's personal collection.

"It's a fabulous painting," says Knoke, explaining the schematic image of a cosmic mountain with a militant figure at its center. "When I learned more about these fierce deities and what they represented, I was fascinated by them. I have been wanting to do this exhibition for a long time."

-- Suzanne Muchnic

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