Q&A with Katherine Kasdorf on Ferocious Beauty

Katherine Kasdorf is the Wieler-Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow and curated Ferocious Beauty: Wrathful Deities from Tibet and Nepal with a team of educators, conservators, designers, and registrars. The exhibition features 12 paintings, sculptures, and ritual objects depicting deities that appear fearsome, but are meant to help their devotees. Their fearsome qualities are intended to frighten and conquer things that hinder the path to enlightenment. We caught up with Katherine to dig a little deeper into the meanings behind these works and what makes them so intriguing.

What was the purpose of these works/ How did people use them?

In Tibet and Nepal, paintings and sculptures depicting Buddhist deities serve as objects of worship. In a ritual setting—within a temple, monastery, or domestic shrine—they are not merely works of art, but sacred images that contain the presence of the divinities they depict. After the artwork has been made, a lama consecrates it through a series of rituals that imbue it with this divine presence, making the image worthy of worship. This is the case for both peaceful and wrathful deities. People honor these deities through words of praise and sacred syllables, through the light of butter lamps, and through other offerings. By presenting these things to the image, people are presenting them directly to the deity.

Divine images also factor into certain meditation rituals in which the practitioner visualizes the deity being worshiped. In these kinds of visualization practices, the meditator praises and makes offerings to the deity mentally, or even imagines that he or she is the deity being visualized. Only certain people have the ritual knowledge required for such practices—the rituals you can perform depend on your level of initiation within a particular ritual tradition. Sculptures and paintings aren’t required for these visualization rituals, but such physical images can serve as models for these kinds of mental, meditative practices.

Why are these artworks so fearsome?

The artworks in Ferocious Beauty depict wrathful Buddhist deities, who destroy harmful, negative forces. Some wrathful deities protect followers of the Buddhist teachings from physical harm, but most of those included in the exhibition conquer psychological obstacles that must be overcome in order to realize enlightenment—obstacles like hatred, ignorance, and greed. They appear so frightening because they must be even more terrifying than the harmful forces that they destroy. So, their sharp weapons, their crowns of skulls and garlands of severed heads, their fangs, their fiery hair, and all their other frightening qualities are used to intimidate and subdue the same things that we want to subdue. These deities are profoundly compassionate; as Rob Linrothe puts it in his introduction to the exhibition catalog Demonic Divine, they embody “benevolent wrath.”

Tibetan / “Raktayamari and Vajravetali” / 14th c. / F.145 / Promised gift of John and Berthe Ford

What made you want to focus on this quality?

I think wrathful deities are some of the most compelling figures in Himalayan art, both visually and in terms of their religious meaning. They’re dynamic and powerful, and the artists who created their images rendered the gruesome and violent details of their iconography with such aesthetic refinement that the very qualities that make them ferocious and fearsome also make them beautiful.

In a similar way, it is through their fierce qualities that wrathful deities help their devotees—actually, they help all living beings. Wrathful deities forcefully destroy obstacles that get in the way of enlightenment and spiritual liberation. These can be external threats to one’s wellbeing, or internal challenges, like hatred and ignorance. The deities use their power—and help you channel your power—to overcome such challenges.

At the Walters, I’ve had the good fortune of working with a fantastic collection of Himalayan art (and South Asian art more broadly), thanks to the quality of the works donated and promised to the museum by John and Berthe Ford. Images of wrathful deities form a strong subset of the Ford Collection, so I decided to develop an exhibition that would both highlight this strength and introduce the subject to Walters visitors.

Can this idea of portraying deities as fearsome be seen in other religious art?

Some Hindu deities are ferocious. The god Shiva and the Great Goddess both have many wrathful forms, and some incarnations of the god Vishnu, such as the man-lion Narasimha, have a fearsome power. Like wrathful Buddhist deities, these gods and goddesses are dangerous to their enemies and beneficial to their devotees. Many of the religious traditions involving Hindu and Buddhist wrathful deities developed alongside one another in India beginning around the seventh century, and there’s a lot of overlap between them, both conceptually and visually. For instance, both Hindu and Buddhist wrathful deities wear crowns of skulls and other adornments made of bones or body parts salvaged from corpses, and both carry skull cups and a range of weapons. This has to do with the tantric character of both; tantric traditions—which were adopted and developed in both Hindu and Buddhist contexts—embrace what more mainstream traditions regard as taboo. Some Hindu and Buddhist deities even share the same name: Mahakala and Bhairava are two wrathful forms of the Hindu god Shiva, and these names turn up in the Buddhist pantheon too, with the protector god Mahakala and the wrathful Buddha Vajrabhairava.

After first being developed in India, tantric Buddhist traditions were brought to Tibet and Nepal, both by Buddhists from those places who had traveled to India as pilgrims or to study at famous Indian monasteries, and by Indian masters who were recruited to establish Buddhist institutions in Tibet and Nepal. Similarly, early tantric Buddhist traditions made their way to East Asia. These traditions continued to develop in different ways in each place where they were adopted, but in Japan especially, we also see a range of wrathful Buddhist deities. 

Nepalese / “Vajravarahi” / 15th c. / F.162 / Promised gift of John and Berthe Ford

What do you think is the most stunning piece in the exhibition?

I think they’re all stunning, but without question my favorite is Vajravarahi, the red goddess sculpture from Nepal. She has such a powerful presence.

What do you hope visitors will take away from the exhibition?

I hope visitors will come away with a fuller understanding of wrathful deities—or at least with the understanding that these images depict gods and goddesses, and not demons or monsters. I also hope they will look closely and enjoy viewing the works of art in the exhibition. And it would be especially meaningful to me if some visitors even make a personal connection with the themes of the show, and reflect on ways that they might overcome some of the challenges they face in their own lives.