By Sylviane Gold, Friday 22 July 2011 for The New York Times.
Gold was so entwined with the ancient culture of Java, the chief island of the Indonesian archipelago, that even its dogs, it was said, wore golden collars.
John Miksic reports the rumors just to debunk them in his book “Old Javanese Gold,” which has been revised and expanded as a companion to the Yale University Art Gallery’s revelatory new exhibition of some 200 gold objects from pre-Islamic Indonesia. Part of a collection donated to the museum by Valerie and Hunter E. Thompson, the artifacts in “Old Javanese Gold: The Hunter Thompson Collection” do not, in fact, include a dog collar. But they are so striking in their diversity that it is easy enough to imagine pampered pets whose gilded accouterments would fit right in with the show’s ritual objects, ornaments and everyday items.
No doubt the array of exquisite miniature jewels misnamed “bird rings” contributes to this illusion. Intricate designs studded with tiny gems and mounted on pea-size rings, they do look as if they could adorn the claws of a well-to-do bird. More likely, the labels say, they were a kind of ear ornament, worn along with the more familiar-looking hoops and hooks incised with geometric patterns and scrollwork.
There are other kinds of jewelry here, too — wire bracelets, delicate chains, carved seal rings, embossed anklets and necklaces of pendants shaped like tiger claws, the better to render the wearer as strong and courageous as the beast. There are clasps and finials used for clothing, heavily inscribed and inlaid with stones. Javanese goldsmiths turned out dainty beading and filigree as well as boldly sculptural forms, catering to a multiplicity of tastes and conventions.
Dazzling as the jewelry items are, they seem almost ordinary when compared with the more mysterious objects connected to specifically Indonesian practices. The earliest of these, a burial mask and funerary face covers made of thin sheets of beaten gold, are powerful and moving in their abstract simplicity and evocation of death.
Less cosmic but equally suggestive, a beautiful little container with a carved lid resembling a flower was probably used for lime powder, one of the components necessary for the millenniums-old habit of betel chewing. An ornate sculpture of a leering, hook-nosed demon was once the handle of a kris, the often wavy-bladed dagger revered in Southeast Asia. A crystal-topped, beehive-shaped golden helmet was made to crown either some noble personage or a full-size statue of Buddha.
Smaller sculptures of Buddha and bodhisattvas attest to the religious fervor that also found expression in the vast 10th-century temple complex at Borobodur on Java.
Anyone who has been to Borobodur, or to the nearby Hindu temple at Prambanan, will not be surprised at the 14 centuries of artistry and workmanship on display in “Old Javanese Gold.”
But even knowledgeable visitors may be stopped in their tracks by the display case filled with tools similar to those used by the craftsmen and artists who made the objects on display. Somehow, with nothing more than humble little hammers and awls, these magicians transformed shiny lumps of metal into sophisticated works of art.
“Old Javanese Gold: The Hunter Thompson Collection,” Yale University Art Gallery, 1111 Chapel Street, New Haven, through Aug. 14. Information: artgallery.yale.edu or (203) 432-0600.
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John Miksic is Associate Professor, Southeast Asian Studies Program, at the National University of Singapore. He is the author of the book ‘Old Javanese Gold: The Hunter Thompson Collection at the Yale University Art Gallery’, 2nd revised edition, New Haven: Yale University Press.