East Meets West in Mandala Art

Temporary floor mandala, flashed by light onto the floor
of the Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery of Asian Art

Mandalas, an important tradition in India, Nepal and Tibet have spread well into the West, or as some think, have always been in the West.  The exhibition, Yoga: The Art of Transformation at the Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery of Art, takes us into art and history surrounding the physical, spiritual and spiritual exercise of yoga.  It’s the first exhibition of its kind. This is the last weekend of the show, featuring works of art in Hindu, Jain and Buddhist practice.   Yoga hold some keys to mental and physical healing.

We’re led into yoga’s 3,000-year history by a series of light patterns flashed on the floor–patterns that are mandalas and have lotus patterns. (Lotus is also the name of a yoga pose.) After this weekend, they’ll be gone with the show, but that’s the spirit of mandalas, at least in the Tibetan tradition.

Light Pattern on the floor of the Sackler Gallery of Asian Art forms a Mandala

Mandalas have radial balance, because their designs flow radially from the center, somewhat like the spokes of a wheel.  Traditional Buddhist monks in Tibet spend time together making mandalas of colored sand, working from the center outward using funnels of sand that form thin lines. Deities are invoked during this process of creation, following the same ancient pattern of 2,500 years.  The creation is thought to have healing influence.  Shortly after its completion, a sand mandala is poured into a river to spread its healing influence to the world.  

Chenrezig Sand Mandala was made for Great Britain’s House of Commons in honor of the Dalai Lama’s visit in May, 2008.   Material: sand, Size:  7′ x 7′    Source of photo:  Wikipedia

Like the Buddhist Stupas which began in India, the Mandalas are microcosms of the macrocosm, or  small replicas of the universe.   Yantras are mandalas that are an Indian tradition which may have a more personal meaning.  Their beautiful geometric designs can be highly efficient tools for contemplation, concentration and meditations.  Concentrating on a focal point, outward chatter ceases and the mind empties to gain a window into truth.   Making mandalas can be a powerful aid in Art Therapy.

North Rose Window of Chartres Cathedral, France, c. 1235

Circles, without a beginning or end, have an association with God and perfection.  They’re an integral part of the design of Gothic Cathedrals, such as Chartres Cathedral and Notre-Dame of Paris which are among the most famous.  Their patterns radiate out from the center, into rose patterns.  I didn’t believe it when, years ago, a student mentioned they were inspired by Indian mandalas.  The greater possibility is that spiritual wisdom comes from the same or similar sources.

Sri Chakra Mandala, ceramic tile, made by Ruth Frances Greenberg
17-1/4″ x 17-1/4″ x 1-1/4′  photo Lubosh Cech 

Artist Ruth Frances Greenberg makes ceramic tile mosaic mandalas in her Portland, Oregon studio, and sells them for personal and decorative use.  Some are inspired by the Om symbol and by the home blessing doorway mandalas of Tibet.   Others are inspired by the Chakras, the energy centers in ancient Indian tradition.  The Sri Chakra Mandala has nine interlocking triangles and beautiful geometric complexity. It combines the basic geometric shapes of circle, square and triangle, and expresses powerful energies.

Hildegard of Bingen, Wheel of Life, c. 1170, photo courtesy of Contemplative Cottage

The circle within a square is common in many traditions, but in Indian art the openings of the square represent gateways.  Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, a study of perfection in human proportions, has a circle within a square.   Medieval mystic, St. Hildegard of Bingen, a Doctor of Church, wrote music and created art in response to her visions.  Wheel of Life is one of her many visions that were put into illumination in the mandala form, in the 12th century.

Chicago artist Allison Svoboda makes mandalas from a surprising combination of media: ink and collage.  She explains, “The same way a plant grows following the path of least resistance, the quick gestures and simplicity of working with ink allows the law of least resistance to prevail….With this process, I work intuitively through thousands of brushstrokes creating hundreds of small paintings. I then collate the work…When I find compositions that intrigue me, I delve into the longer process of collage. Each viewer has his own experience as a new image emerges from the completed arrangement.   The ephemeral quality of the paper and meditative aspect of the brushwork evoke a Buddhist mandala.” 

Allison Svoboda, Mandala, GRAM, 211–detail

The 14′ by 14′ Mandala GRAM from the Grand Rapids Art Museum is a radial construction with many inner designs. Some of these designs resemble a Rorschach test, but infinitely more complicated.

The intricacies of the GRAM Mandala alternate and change as our eyes move around it.  It’s like a kaleidoscope or spinning wheel.  But a configuration in center pull us back in, reminding us to stay centered and whole, as the world changes around us.

Allison Svoboda, Mandala, GRAM, 2011, Grand Rapids Museum of Art, in on paper, collaged 14′ x 14′ 

Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016
Pleasant Surprises on the Backroads of Crete

Pleasant Surprises on the Backroads of Crete

The Church of St. Nicholas in Kourtaliotis Gorge, Crete
Piles of stones beside St. Nicholas Church

I cherish my trips with Backroads Travel Co.  To me the backroads of Crete are full of surprises, in addition to olive orchards, oleanders and orange groves.  On our 3rd day we road from the north to south part of the island. On the way to the beach at Plakias, we bicycled through the Kourtaliotis Gorge. The scenery was breathtaking.  A tiny church, St. Nicholas was nestled behind the oleander and the rocks.  It seemed to be a place where only a handful of monks prayed a long time ago.  Behind it were small piled-up shrines of stone, which resemble votive offerings beside the church.

Crete’s small country churches surprised me, but even smaller churches, or replicas of churches dot the sides of the country roads.  These small shrines are all over the place.

A typical memorial erected among the orange groves of Crete

They’re memorials to loved ones who’ve died and we saw them frequently.  One of the hotshot men on our trip, Dennis, reprimanded me for taking photos of graves in churchyards.  He told me, “It is bad luck.”  (His mother’s family is from Crete.)

The day after we went to the Kourtaliotas Gorge, I experienced bigger surprises — a pair of surprises.  Cindy (she lives in Shanghai and was also on the lookout for great photos) & I came upon an abandoned church, seemingly in the middle of nowhere.  We both took pictures. Cindy biked on, but I decided to check out the inside. 

A 14th century church between the villages of Koufos and Alikianos

Through the opening of a locked door, I could see that in the center of the church was a fresco of Mary surrounded by two saints.  It was too narrow to photograph, but the image was clear but had two big vertical cracks. There were more frescoes to the sides and above, but I really couldn’t see them.

On the outside of the church, a fresco of Mary adorns the pointed arch over a side door. It was badly damaged, but I took a picture (below).  It also had painted trim  directly under the arch in a beautiful red and blue pattern, and a Greek cross below that.

A badly damaged fresco of Mary over the door dates
to the 14th century

Paintings on the outside of a buildings can’t withstand time and weather.

The sign on the road pointed to Church of the Zoohodos Pigi (in Greek and in English, but what could that possibly mean?)  (Later when I was home and looked it up on the Internet, I found a few churches of the same name in Greece.)

This church lies between Alikianos and Koufos. It was built in the early 14th century following an earthquake of 1303, but over the foundations of a 10th century church.  (Earthquakes have always been a problem on this island, and in much of the Mediterranean.)

 Zoohodos Pigi means “life giving source.”

El Greco, Greece’s greatest artist in modern times, was from this part of Crete.  No one knows exactly where El Greco was born, but his family was from Chania and this church is about 10-20 miles away.

We had already passed a town called Alikianos where there was large new blue and terra cotta colored Greek Orthodox church. It’s easy to understand why a church in the middle of nowhere was abandoned.

I hope that the Church of Zoohodos Pigi will be restored.  Apparently it was quite an important church at one time.  Zoohodos Pigi means “life-giving source.”

There’s a new Greek Orthodox church in the village of Alikianos

Just a few miles down the road, I had caught up with Cindy. We had to go up hills too steep for my endurance, and then we turned a corner and stopped.  Here came the the biggest surprise of all:

It was lunch time and someone had just dumped a big truck of excess oranges in a goat pen and the goats were chomping away, peels and all.  They were chomping like crazy, as if in a contests to finish first. We took many pictures.

How funny to realize that these delicious goat cheeses we’ve been eating in Crete come from animals who feed on oranges, the delicious oranges of Crete!

The Goats’ lunch — so good!

I discovered both Greek cheeses and orange cake, also called orange pie, on this trip. My grocery store oranges aren’t quite like the oranges I had been eating, and I haven’t found Graviera cheese in any of my local markets.  There’s nothing like feeling close to history, the land, the animals and the sea than in a Backroads biking trip.