What Museums Don’t Reveal About Religious Art

Some entries in the show are almost purely performative. The power of Tibetan bronze ritual bells lies far less in their appearance than in the wake-up sound they emit. An 18th-century Tibetan manuscript is just a scrap of paper, but carries a vocal and instrumental score for a tantric serenade. And when it comes to the transactional, nothing beats the efficiency of an 18th century Japanese icon of the Amida Buddha, of limitless life. if your eyes are fixed on it at the time of your death, you sail straight through TSA PreCheck to heaven.

There are, of course, social and political stories behind all this art, stories of wars fought, ideologies promoted and suppressed. But it’s the spiritual utility of the Wallach objects that resonates most with me, because that’s what I experienced in Japan all those years ago, and what Western museums, obsessed with the “head -d’oeuvre”, rarely try to tell us about it.

A few days into my stay, I left Tokyo and headed out by train, bus, and on foot through the countryside, stopping at temples and shrines, staying in small inns and monasteries, and every day I witnessed the devotion in progress: seeing flowers and water glasses placed in front of sculptures, picking up the scent of incense in the air, hearing the sound of two rapid claps, an applause of respect and awakening, a gesture that said: I am here; you are here; together.


Spain 1000-1200: art at the frontiers of faith

Through Feb. 13, The Met Cloisters, (212) 923-3700; metmuseum.org.

What is Buddhist art for?

Until March 12, The Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University;

212-853-1623; wallach.columbia.edu.