Theater & art

Frame by Frame

Torso of a fertility goddess (yakshi)

Museum of Fine Arts

This ancient sculpture is one of the great treasures of the Museum of Fine Arts’s internationally celebrated Asian collection. It dates from around the time of Jesus of Nazareth, and one can’t help feeling that if he had seen it in context at the Great Stupa at Sanchi, near Bhopal in India, where it formed part of the decorative scheme on one of four gateways, Christian attitudes toward the body and sin might — just might — have turned out differently.

Carved from sandstone, she is a fertility goddess, or “yakshi,” but a yakshi of a particular kind, known as a “salabhanjika.” Traditionally, a salabhanjika stands beneath a tree with one arm extended to touch one of its branches. There is a famous one still in situ on the eastern gateway at Sanchi.

The touch of a woman, according to Indian myth, could cause the sap of the tree to run, making it flower and bear fruit. (A lovely notion, and in so many ways preferable, it seems, to the Judeo-Christian vision connecting women, trees, and fruit with shame and exile from paradise.) Thus, salabhanjikas were associated with good luck, wealth, fertility — and, in the context of a temple, protection and welcome.

Advertisement

On each of the four gateways at Sanchi, which is a World Heritage site, there were two such figures on the scale of this one, and several smaller figures. They were not meant to be seen in the round but rather from the front, as worshipers entered the grounds of the stupa, and from behind, as they walked around inside.

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Consequently, as the University of Pennsylvania scholar Michael Meister has pointed out, this work is almost like two relief sculptures joined back-to-back. Seen from the side, the yakshi appears awkward and almost lifeless.

Laura Weinstein, the MFA’s curator of South Asian and Islamic art, emphasizes that on the stupa gateway, this yakshi was originally placed on a diagonal, not upright in the manner of a Greek Aphrodite.

Weinstein would like to display her in the same way in the galleries, but unfortunately the sculpture has a clean break just beneath the breasts, and the MFA’s conservators believe the heavy work could not bear the strain of the necessary realignment.

Still, to give viewers a better idea, Weinstein has safely managed a 5-degree shift to the left.

Advertisement

Look at her again. She’s really quite incredible. She’s 2,000 years old, and somehow, after everything she has been through, more beautiful and inviolate than ever.

Past Frame by Frame columns

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.