Last Friday, we opened the final new exhibition of 2012: The Art of Continuity: Revering our Elders. Across Asia and the Pacific Islands, many cultures recognize the role of those who have come before the current generation, and often revere these ancestors through rituals and other practices. Philosophical and religious traditions including Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism, Shinto and other indigenous systems play a significant role in shaping these practices. Confucianism, for example, instructs individuals how to worship family ancestors, which has generated countless objects for use in rituals and at altars, as we discussed in our last post. These traditions both cement the legacy of the ancestors and preserve their favor on those still living.
Respecting one’s parents and observing rituals for ancestors is of the utmost importance in Confucian thought, serving to stabilize society. Altar tables, despite their use in patrilineal Confucian society, provide space for elders of both genders to be revered. The Art of Continuity features an example of an altar table and an embroidered cloth that would have covered it, as well as a 1743 edition of the Chinese classic Li Ji (Book of Rites) that sets forth guidelines for rituals. Proper ancestor worship requires various prescribed implements such as dress, utensils, tablets bearing the ancestors’ names and altar tables. The altar table holds a portrait of the ancestor, a tablet with his or her name, candles, incense and other offerings including food, flowers and wine.
Ancestor portraits allowed the descendants to glorify and venerate their ancestors, fulfilling their filial duties, and were mostly commissioned after the death of the subject to be used in funerary proceedings and placed on an altar for future observances. These rituals ensured the blessings of and guidance from the ancestor. Ancestor portraits were usually hung as a pair: an image of a husband would be to the east of his wife, and when viewed by worshippers the male portrait would be on the right. Although separate portraits depicting one ancestor each were more common, group portraits presenting multiple generations such as this one were also commissioned. When multiple generations were portrayed, the male who was the head of the household was seated above other members of the family. The ancestors always appear in the finest formal clothing with rank badges when applicable, and the background was often left blank or monochrome in order to further emphasize the portrayed relative. Special attention was given to the face in particular, where the features both identified the ancestor and could be exaggerated to associated him or her with desirable traits.
This exhibition not only examines the veneration of blood relatives, but also those of elders connected through monastic or community ties. We’ll explore those ideas and traditions in later blog posts, so keep checking back. Better yet, come see the exhibition for yourself! You can learn about the various traditions throughout Asia and the Pacific Islands, and also contribute your own thoughts and memories– at the end of the exhibition, take a moment to recall your own ancestors and how you remember them today at the recording station. ~CM
Image: Portrait of a Man with His Mother and Wife, China, Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), 19th century, Ink, color and gold on silk, Gift of Miss Ruth P. Eames, with conservation funds provided by Anna Bresnahan in 2007, 1981.21.2