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Enlightenment on an Intimate Scale

    By James C. Ackerman

    Sixteen years after retiring from teaching, I visited India for a tour of Rajasthan and saw the Adinatha temple at Ranakpur, which transformed my perspective on Western architecture. Virtually every visible interior surface of this stone temple, save the floor, is devoted to sculpted representations of deities and mythical beings drawn from the gospels of the Jain sects. Every architectural element—statues, piers, columns, lintels, ceiling slabs, steles, saucer-domes—is carved with symbols and images of these fantastic deities

    This temple, built in the late 15th century, is a major monument of Jain architecture, an ancient ascetic faith based on nonviolence. The plan is a blunted regular cruciform. I was intrigued on entering not to find a great nave extending to the opposite end of the building as in mosques and Christian basilicas, but by the amplitude of connected spaces on slightly different levels, spaces uniquely imaginative in their varying sizes and structures. Some are open to the sky, some have fountains and some have ancient trees growing out to the roof. Some accommodate prayer and meditation in a space containing a statue of one of the 24 original teachers.

    Part of my delight in this interior was the sense of being enveloped rather than directed to a particular destination. This proliferation of intimate spaces is called for by Jain theology, which has no single deity. There are countless deities who exhibit all the virtues and vices of humans, providing rich material for the sculptors’ narratives.

    Architectural treatises dictated general principles for the proportions of the supporting elements, along with roofing techniques such as the forming of domes by corbeling. The master builder would have determined the overall design from a repertory of established types. This one, called Camulka, is designed around a pivotal square center, a raised platform with quadruple images of the deity. Within this temple there are 420 supporting columns and piers carved by many artisans.

    The scale is particularly congenial. In contrast to Western temple and church monuments, the courts and passages are small and congenial; open areas can contain only a few worshipers or visitors. Figural and symbolic reliefs are not high overhead as in the Parthenon or Chartres Cathedral, but at one’s own level so that one is immersed in the visual experience—most of the piers are little more than twice my height, and the figuration begins immediately above the socle (base). In the center of a couple of the courts quasinaturalistic freestanding elephants of roughly half natural size—a major feature of Hindu as well as Jain temples—step forward on platforms.

    I vividly recall one of the 86 chapels—a closed structure near the temple’s center, about the size of a family mausoleum in modern cemeteries. A large metal door framed by densely figured carvings provides the only entrance; as in other Jain temples, a central plinth like those of neighboring columns helps priests to enter and exit.

    Before the door is a columnar porch with octagonal columns, in one bay of which is a broad stele—a monolithic carved stone with a peaked top like a gable. Rectangular niches of varying sizes carved into the surface contain ritual objects, Buddhas, deities, human and animal figures, and conic architectural shapes that may represent other temples (possibly the stele is a stone version of the painted maps depicting the Jain sites). While the box grid imposes order, it is challenged by the size and proportion of the niches and by the asymmetry of the dominant horizontals and verticals. I find the figurative stone an embodiment of the vitality of every aspect of the building in its fusion of individual invention and established rules that control a community with a common purpose. The experience was like listening to the harmonious confluence of the many members of a choir into one enveloping sound.

    My response to Ranakpur led me to examine the limitations of my approach to architecture and, for the first time, the history of the interaction of narrative and architecture in Western religious buildings.

    The Greeks portrayed their gods and their primeval battles on the exteriors of temples, in the pediments and friezes. In the long halls of Early Christian basilicas, particularly those with rows of columns dividing a nave from side aisles, as in the fifth-century Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, narration was primarily on the interior. Architects assigned spaces above the nave colonnades and in the apses for brilliantly colored mosaics of Bible stories and supernatural manifestations such as the epiphany of the Trinity. But in contrast to the Jain temple, the viewer’s attention is drawn decisively toward a climax in the presbytery.

    The prohibition of imagery (Iconoclasm) by the Eastern Church in the eighth and ninth centuries (and, after the Reformation, by Protestant sects) was a reaction against the widespread heresy of “real presence”—the belief that the image of God or of Christ had itself an aspect of divinity.

    During the Romanesque period (1000-1200), narration in church architecture took the form of relief sculpture. It was restricted to the portals and their flanking embrasures, as well as the capitals of columns supporting the arches and shafts of the nave and side aisles.

    Gothic architecture added narrative in colored stained glass to the figurative repertory, and frescoes at the close of the Middle Ages. Still, figuration in Western architecture continued to be confined to those spaces provided in the architect’s or builder’s plan. This divorce of narration from structure in Western architecture was confirmed in the early Renaissance (15th century), when humanists sought to elevate the status of architects, establishing the designer’s control of every element of a structure, conferring an auteur dominance.

    Some Baroque painters eventually achieved a bit of revenge by devising illusionistic frescoes that appear to demolish nave vaults and domes to reveal the divine occupants of a sunlit heaven sitting on or floating around clouds.

    At Ranakpur, I was enthralled by the way the temple embraces its visitors with a variety of intimate and inviting environments, in contrast to the focused authority of the Western basilica. I was affected by the human scale, the energetic figuration, bursts of color and of light, and by the exotic fragrances.

    We expand our horizons by challenges to our expectations—on this occasion, by my introduction to an architecture that had been unimaginable in my previous experience.

    —Mr. Ackerman, Arthur Kingsley Professor of Fine Arts Emeritus at Harvard, is the author of, among other books, “The Architecture of Michelangelo,” “Palladio” and “The Villa.”

    -Article Courtesy: Wall Street Journal

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