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Doctrinal reflections on ‘Death is Not the End’ at the Rubin Museum, New York

11 August 2023

Andrew Davison is struck by the view of Christianity in an interfaith exhibition

David De Armas for the Rubin Museum of Art

An 18th-century painted terracotta work made in Tibet, Lords of the Charnel Ground, also known as Smashana Adipati

An 18th-century painted terracotta work made in Tibet, Lords of the Charnel Ground, also known as Smashana Adipati

EVEN after 25 years of visiting New York, I had not heard of the Rubin Museum of Art. Hidden away in Chelsea, it is dedicated to the arts, cultures, and ideas of the Himalayas, particularly the Tibetan Plateau. It is both a museum and a public workshop for ideas, coming at contemporary questions through “the philosophical traditions of Buddhism, Hinduism, and indigenous religions”.

Christian visitors will find the Rubin Museum a model of invitation when it comes to learning about religious traditions not their own, specifically to Christianity in the current temporary exhibition, “Death is not the End”: a comparison of attitudes between Buddhism and Christianity when it comes to death, dying, and the afterlife. Provoked, we are told, by the Covid-19 pandemic, its three sections take in the Human Condition, States In-Between, and After-Life. Each places art and objects from Himalayan Buddhism alongside others from Christianity (largely Western), all with detailed descriptions and additional display boards on various themes.

For an exercise in bridge-building, there is no surprise that the objects are set side-by-side with an eye to finding parallels, and that they are not short on the ground. We might start simply with a shared belief in life after death, and then add prayers for the dead and momento mori images and practices. Divine aid is another common theme, although that also serves to highlight differences between these traditions, and I will return to that.

Among all that this fascinating exhibition had to offer, what was most instructive and sticks most in my memory emerges from places where the written commentaries pushed the parallels between Buddhism and Christianity just a little too far. I do not suppose that the organisers set out to offer us a glimpse of what Christianity looks like through Buddhist eyes, but that is what we get. I cannot fault the museum for this entirely generous exercise in placing traditions alongside one another.

No one was trying to commend Buddhism over Christianity, and I think that the curators sincerely wanted to be true to Christianity on its own terms. It is just that the concepts that came naturally to mind, in presenting these works of art, were Buddhist ones, naturally enough. That shows, and it is fascinating.


TAKE the idea of Bardo: a place or state of decision lying after death in the Buddhist system common in the Himalayas, where the soul must choose either to turn away from the world, and further reincarnation, or be plunged back into them. This was paired in the exhibition with purgatory, as also a place or state coming after death (at least, according to many Christian traditions), where — again — the soul is supposed to come to its senses.

I can see where the parallel came from, but it works less than half well. Purgatory, we are told, is an “interim state . . . where the soul abides after physical death of the body to await the Last Judgement, whether it be saved or damned”.

Rubin Museum of ArtWheel of Life, a 19th-century artwork in pigments on cloth, from Tibet or Mongolia

In Christianity, however, purgatory features as a place of healing purgation only for the redeemed. Moreover, unlike Bardo, it offers no choices — other, perhaps, than the chance to cooperate with the divine process of purification with greater enthusiasm or less. There is no sense, despite what we read in the exhibition, of “improving the chance for salvation through suffering in purgatory”.

At least on the majority Christian view, and certainly in the Catholic one from which purgatory comes, having left this mortal body, one looks in vain for the possibility of turning to God, if one had not troubled to do that while in the body (to quote a trenchant line from St Augustine in his City of God).

Much the same could be said about the alignment of Buddhist and Christian hells in this exhibition. True enough, it is striking how similar they look in these artistic depictions; and yet what is being depicted is fundamentally different. For the Buddhist, there is always the chance of release and a better outcome; in depicting Christian hell, none of the artists on display had anything like that in mind. Hell lasts for ever, with no way out. (We might hope that no one ends up in hell, thanks to the mercy of God, but, even if that is so, the hell that is avoided is an eternal hell.)

A third example of a parallel that is not as strong as it looks comes with the resurrection of Christ. In this exhibition, that is set alongside Buddhist figures who are said to have been raised from the dead, so as to return to their communities in their old and familiar incarnations (i.e. not as reincarnations) to preach about amendment of life in view of what comes after death.

This is compared to Christ’s resurrection, but a better parallel would be the raising of Lazarus. The resurrection of Christ is presented here with its eschatology missing, without a sense that it is the fulcrum of salvation: not being a matter of resuscitation, but the beginning of the redemptive transformation of the whole order.


THAT brings me back to divine aid. Apart from the occasional mention of Christ as Saviour, Jesus features here rather like the saints in Catholicism or Orthodoxy, and — therefore — rather like various divine and semi-divine figures in Buddhism: i.e. as a helper. It is fascinating how little purchase the idea of atonement has within this marvelously well-intentioned Eastern perspective on Christianity.

The vision of Christianity which it presents is basically Pelagian: we are all on a journey of improvement, renunciation, and enlightenment; while there are various benevolent figures who will help us on our way, it is our own journey; ultimately, we get there largely under our own steam.

Paradoxically, the part of the Christian message which, therefore, rang out for me most distinctively from this exhibition was what this discussion of death and life after death did not say about Christianity: that if “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”, we are, none the less, “now justified by God’s grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus”, as St Paul put it.

Christians, I expect, will generally agree upon that. It is not so much a common view of Christianity on display in this exhibition, however, as, rather, a distinctively Catholic one. There are reasons for that. Catholic theologians have typically said far more about the intermediate state between death and resurrection than Protestants have, and there is also a far greater tendency in Catholicism to attempt to depict that in paint or ink.

Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harris Brisbane Dick FundEngraving of The Descent of Christ Into Limbo by Pieter van der Heyden (c.1525-69), Antwerp, c.1561

Protestantism isn’t without a visual culture around death, or a ritual culture for that matter (which is also a theme in this exhibition), but Catholicism is the more abundant place to look for them. The visitor may, therefore, again take away from the exhibition something important from what is not depicted, or at least from what is at least under-represented, namely that Christianity is a bustlingly diverse range of traditions, going beyond the largely Catholic centre of gravity on display here, not only in the direction of Protestantism, but also with Orthodoxy in its various forms.

That point about diversity also struck me also when it came to Buddhism. The goal of life, or of many lives, in much of the art displayed here is rebirth in the “Pure Land” of the Buddha, with Nirvana very little in view. The emphasis in this exhibition on art and religion in everyday life may be a factor here: the Pure Lands can be depicted, and are indeed depicted delightfully, but how do you even begin to depict Nirvana?

It might be impossible. Equally, the hope of those Pure Lands has historically held more of a hold on the religious imagination of the wider population than more abstractly philosophical approaches to Buddhism have. Most fundamentally of all, this Pure Land Buddhism is simply what is to be found in the region under discussion: the Himalayas, and especially Tibet.

Rather as Protestantism is somewhat conspicuous here by its absence, the difference between what is on display here and other forms of Buddhism — which may be more familiar to the visitor — is another lesson that the exhibition can teach us.


EXHIBITIONS such as this one matter because inter-religious literacy is an act of charity towards our neighbours. It helps us to understand what matters to them, and how they see life. In the case under discussion here, it helps us to understand how our neighbours mourn, and how they prepare for death. Such literacy, as we have seen, can also help us to understand and explain our own faith more clearly.

What the current exhibition offers us for literacy around death and the afterlife, a more permanent exhibition on the second floor offers far more generally, as a “Gateway to Himalayan Art”. Indeed, I could go further and describe that exhibition as a well-nigh perfect introduction to the art and culture of the region.

David de Armas/Rubin Museum of ArtArtworks on display at the “Death Is Not the End” exhibition at the Rubin Museum of Art, New York

The first half considers how things are made, with a focus on a handful of the most important materials and techniques. The process of painting a scroll, for instance, or of casting a statue, is illustrated with iterations of the same object, taken through stages on the way to the finished item. The other half looks at what is depicted. Here, we appreciate just how profoundly religion suffuses this art.

A series of display boards and artefacts helps us to understand figures, both human and divine, not least in terms of postures and gestures. Also in view are implements and objects for ritual use, and some central theological concepts. Buddhism dominates here, although Hinduism and some more localised forms of indigenous religion are also in evidence.

Constructing those displays about artistic processes involved commissioning new works, even commissioning them several times over, in different stages of completion. Elsewhere in the museum, the visitor will again be struck further by this commitment to supporting the arts in the 21st century, both in traditional forms and in more contemporary styles, although still addressing the time-honoured themes and topics.

On the floor between this “Gateway” exhibition, with its introduction to the art of the region, and the exhibition on death and the afterlife lies what might be called an immersive floor, offering “stations” — some religious, others more scientific — where visitors can interact in a way that calls for them to use their hands or, in one instance, even their noses. That didn’t particularly engage me, but “Death is not the End” certainly did, as did the “Gateway” floor. Indeed, I cannot think of a museum anywhere in the world which could offer a similarly thorough and accessible introduction into the visual culture of Christian arts and cultures.


The Revd Dr Andrew Davison is the Starbridge Associate Professor in Theology and Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge, a Fellow in Theology at Corpus Christi College, and currently Visiting Fellow at the Center of Theological Inquiry, Princeton. “Death is not the End” is at the Rubin Museum of Art, 150 West 17th Street, New York, until 14 January 2024. Phone: 00 1 212 620 5000. rubinmuseum.org

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