Exhibition – Nara to Norwich: Art and belief at the extremities of the Silk Roads, 500-1100

Nara to Norwich – Beyond the Silk Road

The Silk Road is recognised internationally as perhaps the most famous ancient trade route that linked the East and West. Most studies of the Silk Roads focus on exchanges between the two continental extremes, China with Rome and then Byzantium. But in Japan the terminus of the Silk Road is Nara, and its Imperial Treasury, the Shōsōin, full of Silk Road and Buddhist treasures. If we look to the West, discoveries of silk and Buddhist images in northern Europe are testimony to the fact that the Silk Road as we know it extends further than its traditionally regarded terminus at the Mediterranean and paints a picture of a more far-reaching global network than previously thought.

Religion at these extended extremities of the Silk Road also display the remarkable similarities between Japan and Britain as both areas saw the emergence of new nations. Buddhism spread throughout the Japanese archipelago, stimulating the coalescence of indigenous practices and cult beliefs into what became known as Shinto, while at the other end of Eurasia, Christianity spread through the British Isles, absorbing many elements of local Celtic and Saxon spirituality. As ideas and commodities were exchanged along the Silk Roads, Europe and Asia became connected by both land and sea. 

Inspired by several intriguing objects, such as a small bronze head of a Bodhisattva in the Sainsbury Centre, dated to the 7th century, stated to be from Japan but with clear Korean or Chinese characteristics, the online exhibition Nara to Norwich: Art and belief at the extremities of the Silk Roads, 500 – 1100 AD explores the intersection and encounters of art and religion, and how these ideas and concepts were shaped, adapted, and influenced in the context of an increasingly connected Afro-Eurasia.

Exploring the Exhibition  

The online exhibition was launched on 7th June, following a series of lectures, publications, seminars, and research (you can read more about the background to the exhibition on the project timeline). To explore the sacred encounters at either end of the Silk Road, this online exhibition takes as its focus eleven stories covering topics such as Pilgrimage, Death and Burials, and Relics. One of the unique advantages of the online format is that architecture, objects and texts can be brought together in one space – echoing the breadth of materiality introduced by these new religions at this time. This is perfectly illustrated by the Arrivals story, which brings together a stupa from Mireuksa, a chapel in Bradwell-on-Sea, and even allows you to flick through a translation of the Vita Ansgarii (The Life of Ansgar), a late 9th century manuscript documenting the life of Ansgar (801–865), ‘Apostle of the North’.

The exhibition will continue to be updated so keep checking back on the website as more stories and objects are added.

From Norwich to Sweden

In June 2022, the Nara to Norwich team travelled to Sweden to visit some of the archaeological sites and objects explored in the exhibition. One particular object that drew the team there was the Helgö Buddha, a small Buddha statue excavated from a Viking house in Helgö, Sweden in 1954, and made in the Swat Valley of northern Pakistan. Understanding the story of this object, from its religious function, its physical origin, and how it found its way into a Viking house over 3,000 miles away, was part of the inspiration behind the exhibition.  

While in Sweden, the team visited the burial mounds of Valsgärde and Gamla Uppsala, the Viking-age trading centre of Birka, and met with contributors, curators and project team members to better understand Scandinavian trade and pilgrimage during the Vendel and Viking periods. You can read more about the trip in a blog post written by Naomi Hughes-White, Digital and Project Support for the exhibition.

Replica Viking boat in the reconstructed harbour area at Birka on Lake Mӓlaren, visited by the project team during their trip.

The online exhibition is due to continue until 2024. As research continues and stories are revealed, the exhibition will be expanded and updated to further explore how religious ideas travel, through trade, conquest, emulation and war. There are also plans for one of the stories to take the form of a physical exhibition in 2024, coinciding with the Sainsbury Institute’s 25th anniversary – more information about this and other related activities will be released on our website and e-bulletin as it is confirmed.