Vishnu's European Look: The Problem with Designing by Gossip

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Q nearly 50 years ago, i bought a series of illustrations entitled The Transformations of Vishnu in a used bookstore in Venice, italy. would anyone at the Museum be able to direct me to information on the provenance of these illustrations?

--Carl A., Ottawa, Ontario

A Your illustrations depict various manifestations, or avatars, of the Hindu god Vishnu. Known as the Creator/Destroyer, the God of Protection, and the Overseer of Past, Present, and Future, Vishnu is often depicted with blue skin, wearing a crown, and holding various attributes in his four hands. These objects--lotus, mace, conch, and discus--symbolize respectively the universe, the notion of individual existence, creative power, and the mind.

In two of your images Vishnu is depicted as the boar-incarnation "Varaha" and the half-man half-lion incarnation "Narasimha." Each is associated with extensive stories that ultimately involve themes of protection and the triumph of good over evil.

The depictions are clearly European interpretations of the Hindu figure. In two of the images, Vishnu looks more like a Greek god--he is bearded and carrying a sword--than a South Asian figure of divinity, probably because European representations were the visual reference that was familiar to the illustrator. Published in a general history of the peoples of the world, the images were executed in the mid-18th century when Europeans rarely travelled to South Asia. …