Art collection tells stories of ‘Gods and Guardians’

Michelle Annett Roldan
Staff Writer 

The Williamson Gallery at Scripps College is showing the exhibit “Gods and Guardians in Asian Arts, ” featuring sculptures, paintings and hallowed objects of Hindu, Buddhist, Daoist, and Shinto gods and guardians. 

The exhibition, on view until Dec. 18, is curated by Bruce Coats, a retired Scripps College professor of art history.

“The Williamson Gallery tries to do an Asian art exhibition about once every three years,” Coats said. “And so this was a chance to bring up all of our religious objects.” 

The gallery has one of the largest collections of Chinese paintings in Southern California, containing about 130. 

The structure of the “Gods and Guardians” exhibition allows the viewer to learn about these figures, as well as their stories or transitions through other parts of Asia. 

“Buddhism is (displayed) on the north and east walls, Daoism is over on the south wall, and then we have a number of Hindu deities that were absorbed into Buddhism,” Coats said.

Some of the art pieces show the change that deities – gods or goddesses – have gone through. Some start off male and turn female, some transition from from star to human. 

On one wall, the exhibition displays different versions of Buddha.

Despite Buddha being a historical figure, Coats explained the differences between the way various parts of Asia began to depict him when the teachings expanded from India to China, Korea, and Japan. 

“The Japanese have a tendency to make images of the Buddha with a very full face, and in Thailand, the Buddhists often have a very long, narrow face, and quite distinctive, different treatment of the hair,” Coats said. “This one’s from Cambodia, very strong cheekbones, which is quite typical of the Cambodian male face.”

The exhibition allows viewers to see the various depictions. 

The exhibition also has a dictionary showing a Buddhist deity on top and the Shinto counterpart underneath. In essence, it is the same deity but in two different forms for whoever is interested in studying its gestures and positions. Aside from the dictionary, there is also a guidebook.

“On the other side is a guidebook to an island off the coast of Shanghai, where supposedly the bodhisattva of compassion resides,” Coats said. “And so using the guidebook, you can go around and see 33 different versions of her. It also has images of temples and scenic aspects of the island.”

Coincidentally, one of the gods and guardians that Coats found himself most drawn to was bodhisattva of compassion.

“I think I’m most interested in images of the bodhisattva of compassion, because there’s so many different ones and they’re different sizes and different mediums,” Coats said. “The one on the north wall is one that I particularly liked.”

The Williamson Gallery is located at 251 E. 11th St. in Claremont. 

The gallery is open from 1-5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, when exhibitions are on view.

Michelle Annett Roldan can be reached at

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