The Mural Paintings of Wat Suthat, Bangkok.
My heart literally skips a beat when I behold these dazzling images! In my eyes at least – this temple – with its intense beauty of form and ‘decoration’ is proof that art has the power to lift us into another, timeless dimension. During my masters I made a study of Wat Suthat which is located in Bangkok, Thailand, and was commissioned by the Chakri monarch Rama I (r.1782-1809). The temple was built in order to bring divine protection from the Burmese to the city. The theme of the murals in the viharn (main hall) is the three worlds cosmology which until the mid-19th century was at the centre of Thai Theravada Buddhist belief. The first world is essentially hell, or the world of desires inhabited by men, animals and ghosts. The second world is that of form and is inhabited by Brahma deities, who though conditioned by form, are free from worldly desires and sensation. The third world, is that of the gods and is entirely formless. Mount Meru, which we have encountered a number of times in these posts, is the abode of the gods and lies at the epicentre of the three worlds. The three worlds cosmology was popular with the Siamese (Thai) ruling elite since it reflected the social hierarchy of their own system. It was said, that a person who had lived previous meritorious existences would be born into an advantageous life. Thus, the affluent members of society were higher up in the cosmic order. The three worlds cosmology also had appeal to peasant folk who could be ever hopeful of rising in the cosmic order despite their earthly restrictions.The effect created by the large, gilded Phra Sri Sakayamuni (Buddha) statue in bhumisparsa (earth touching) mudra surrounded by seemingly endless, minutely detailed, and beautiful painted scenes in rich colours touched with gold is a humbling experience. The viharn seems to be designed as a reminder of the magnitude of the cosmos and the smallness of the self.
These exquisite paintings followed strict guidelines and yet they do not appear dry and static, on the contrary they are gorgeously stylish and imaginative. The ample use of gold enhances the other-worldly effect of these murals and must have left the then largely illiterate Thai population feeling very devote indeed.