Symbolising exalted fertility, cosmic creation and the ability to rise gloriously from nadir – the lotus flower has garnered an intrinsic space in religion, folklore and, inevitably, art.
Religions in the East have revered and venerated the lotus flower. From sculptures to statues, to ceramics and paintings, the lotus is the foremost symbol of beauty, prosperity and fertility. According to Hinduism, the spirit of the sacred lotus resides within each of us humans.
It is a symbol of eternity, purity, divinity, fertility, and ever-renewing youth. When a woman is described as lotus-eyed, it exemplifies feminine beauty. The Metropolitan Museum in New York, has amongst its humungous collection a set of works all reflective and illustrative of the lotus. Objects and sculptures and paintings reflect references to the lotus. If a gilt bronze lotus stands as an emblem, it is only the simplest personification of the power and beauty of this greatly loved flower.
Hindu texts describe that water represents the procreative aspect of the Absolute, and the cosmic lotus, the generative.
A wooden 1st-century Plaque of Durga Standing on a Lotus from the Shunga Period (West Bengal), is a delight in terms of understanding relief techniques from the days of yore. The simplicity of form and the embellishments of flowers tell us how important floral elements were even in the 1st century.
The 10th-11th century sandstone Vishnu from Punjab is an intricate choreography of gods. This elaborate stela of the God Vishnu shows him at the centre, holding his usual attributes (clockwise from upper-right): a chakra (war discus), a conch-shell trumpet, and a gada (mace). His raised hand is held in abhayamudra, or the fear-allaying gesture. He wears a tall miter and a long garland of flowers. His head is surrounded by an ornate nimbus with bands of lotus petals, flames, and abstracted triangular floral motifs.
There is a story that the lotus arose from the navel of God Vishnu, and at the centre of the flower sat Brahma. Brahma (the Creator), Vishnu (the Protector) and Siva (the Merger) are associated with this plant. There are also accounts of the world born through a "Golden Lotus" and Padmakalpa, the Lotus Age in the Padmapurana.
Equally enticing is Standing Vishnu as Keshava, a stone sculpture from the first quarter of the 12th century. A Hindu text favoured by the Hoysalas cites twenty-four names for Vishnu, beginning with Keshava. Each name is associated with a form, and all of the forms have four arms and hold the same attributes: a shankha (conch battle trumpet), a gada (mace), a chakra (war discus), and a padma (lotus). It is the order in which the attributes are held in the God's four hands that varies and that signifies the various names of the God.
Lotus headed fertility goddess Lajja Gauri - 6th century sandstone is shown in a birthing posture, it does not display the swollen belly of one about to give birth, which suggests that the image is of sexual fecundity. The lotus flower in place of her head makes this association with fertility explicit. This expression of the concept of the female body as the embodiment of life-affirming forces is perhaps the most extreme in Indian iconography. At her left is a diminutive kneeling figure, undoubtedly the donor. This miniature sculpture was reportedly found in the Seoni district of Madhya Pradesh, central India.
Surya Hindu Solar Deity is a 14th century copper alloy sculpture from Nepal, Surya is considered the source of light. His origins can be traced to the earliest Indian text, the Rigveda, and his conventional West Asian mode of dress affirms his links to the solar cults of early Iran. He wears a tunic and high boots typical of early Iranian imagery and holds two lotuses in full bloom – emblems of the power of the sun.
Celestial figure emerging from a flower – is a delightful sculpture belonging to the Khotan kingdom. The 6th-7th century work from China is made of stucco with colour. This female celestial (apsara) form of a complex halo springs from an open lotus and holds a garland of pearls to honour the deity she must have attended.
For Buddhists, the lotus flower symbolises the most exalted state of a human; head held high, pure and undefiled in the sun, feet rooted in the world of experience.
In the Northern Song dynasty, scholar Zhou Dunyi wrote in his prose, Ai Lian Shuo, that the lotus "unsullied from silt where it comes from, retains demure despite being cleaned by water". This idiom has since become the phrase commonly used to describe the flower. The lotus rises from mud and blossoms, unmarred and beautiful, above the dirty water. This majestic image has come to symbolise perfection and purity of heart and mind, symbolising the holy seat of Buddha.
An unusual 2nd century Roman period Ram with a lotus manger from Egypt created out of faience is both historic and charming, with its almost prehensile muzzle, it feeds from a lotus-form trough. The traditional Egyptian gods Amun or Khnum were identified with curly-horned rams, but by this time several other divinities were as well. In terracotta statuettes and on coins, Harpokrates can be seen riding a ram or sitting upon a lotus flower, the latter symbolic of rebirth. Perhaps this faience composition alludes to Harpokrates, who was an immensely popular god of fecundity and rebirth during the Roman era.