Visual Arts

Jain shrine to go on display at Nelson after more than 80 years

This carved and painted wood Jain shrine made in Gujarat, India, in the 16th century, is being moved from the conservation department, where it has been extensively cleaned, to Gallery 203, to be displayed for the first time since the museum purchased it in 1932.
This carved and painted wood Jain shrine made in Gujarat, India, in the 16th century, is being moved from the conservation department, where it has been extensively cleaned, to Gallery 203, to be displayed for the first time since the museum purchased it in 1932. Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

It has been in the collection for ages but has never been displayed. A colorful painted wood Jain shrine, made in India in the 16th century and used for domestic worship, goes on public view Friday in Gallery 203 at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

And for the first time in ages, it’s clean. A team of conservators led by Kate Garland has spent the past year removing grime and dirt from the roughly 7-foot-tall shrine using solvent gels and thousands of handmade swabs.

And that’s not all. When the museum acquired the piece in 1932, the shrine did not have a ceiling, but the Nelson shrine did have a lotus design ceiling panel from another shrine.

The museum’s designers, working with local contractors, used that panel as a template to create a replica ceiling that fit the Nelson’s shrine.

“It gives the experience of a shrine as it was intended and includes the symbolic content of the ceiling (lotuses, which represent the floor of heaven). Also, since the ceiling is a replica, we can install lighting into the ceiling panel to illuminate the shrine,” said Kimberly Masteller, the museum’s curator of South and Southeast Asian art.

Masteller says the piece is “an outstanding example of a domestic Jain shrine and one of only seven known in U.S. collections.”

It consists of a porch frame, supported by two pillars, and two doors, with framing posts and lintels. All are intricately carved and painted with dense ornamentation and charming figures, such as the three monks and two patrons that appear on the lintel.

Jains practice nonviolence and seek to free themselves from worldly attachments.

As Masteller explains, “Jains strive toward perfection of the soul in order to be liberated from the cycle of samsara (rebirth). They are known for their strict ethics in efforts to cancel out karma earned from previous lifetimes. Their codes of conduct include: Ahimsa (nonviolence), Satya (truthfulness), Asteya (do not steal), Brahmacharya (chastity, or no adultery in lay people), and Aparigraha (limit one’s personal possessions).”

This shrine would have been used at home in daily veneration of a spiritually advanced exemplar (known as a Jina or Tirthankara) who has been liberated from the cycle of rebirth. A small sculpture of one of the Jinas or Tirthankaras would have been placed inside.

The shrine is the centerpiece of a small exhibit, “Revealing a Hidden Treasure: A Jain Shrine From India,” which includes a video about the cleaning process and information about how the new ceiling was made.

On display soon

“Revealing a Hidden Treasure: A Jain Shrine from India” will be on display starting June 20 in Gallery 203 at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525 Oak St.

Hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday; 10 a.m.- 9 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Admission is free. For more information, 816-751-1278 or www.nelson-atkins.org.

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