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Religious Themes in Asian Art


Admission requirements

Description & Goals

The first part of this course focuses on religious narratives in Asian art. Religious stories in Asia are, as elsewhere, continuously retold, reworked, and adapted to new contexts, not only by way of words, but also by way of the visual medium. Stories, such as the Ramayana, a famous Indian epic that spread to Southeast Asia and beyond, and the Jatakas, pan-Asian stories about the previous lives of the Buddha, have various textual versions, but also as many visual versions, dating from ancient times to the present. Starting from Gombrich’s ‘theory of decorum’ we discuss the great flexibility of the visual medium in adapting such religious narratives to new contexts (domestic, religious, political) and the ways in which their meanings were manipulated in the course of this process. In class we examine a number of case studies (Jatakas and Ramayana) within various different Southeast Asian contexts, but your paper may focus on other religious stories in other Asian contexts.
The second part of the series focuses on the importance of symbols and symbolic visual vocabulary in giving meaning to the religious art of Asia. The literature discussed studies symbols as signifiers of beliefs and concepts in the iconography of Asia (with case studies mostly taken from South Asia and Tibet).We will come across the use of symbols and symbol groups as surprisingly long-lived bearers of auspiciousness. And as smart and surprisingly persistent means to express how the divine and the human interact and connect. We also explore how cosmological visions of the universe get expressed in monumental art, manuscript illustrations and Tibetan scroll paintings. The symbolism of multiplicity (the representation of divine powers through multiplication of e.g. body parts), which is such a strong signifier in Asian sacred language, is another topic on our list. And finally we examine how Asian arts developed new visual vocabularies for expressing and representing divine power. Case studies are taken from various religious contexts offered by Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism.

Course objectives

Knowledge of the religious art and material culture of South and Southeast Asia.
Insight in the function of religous art in its art historical and cultural context.
Insight in the art historical discipline as applied to Asian art.
Insight into some of the problems and debates in the study of Asian art
Academic skills to describe and analyse religious themes in Asian art and interpret them in their art historical context


Check the timetable on the departmental website.

Mode of instruction

Seminar combined with individual research of source materials


Block 1:
Meetings: 2 × 6 h = 12 h
Weekly written reports of readings: 5 × 8 h = 40 h
Paper: 88 h
Block 2:
Meetings: 2 × 6 h = 12 h
Weekly written reports of readings: 5 × 8 h = 40 h
Paper: 88 h


5 ec version: 5 written reports of readings (40%) during the course (block 1 or 2); 1 paper (3000-4000 words) at the end of block 1 or 2 (60%)
10 ec version: 10 written reports of readings (40%) during the course (block 1 and 2); 2 papers (3000-4000 words each), one at the end of each block (60%)


Blackboard will be used. Students are requested to register on Blackboard for this course.

Reading List

Reading materials will be made available in Blackboard, if possible.
Readings for the first meeting to be announced in Blackboard.


Registration via uSis.

Registration Contractonderwijs


Contact Prof.dr. M.J. Klokke Dr. E.M. Raven