How to look at Buddhist art

by Liz on August 22, 2010

in Art & Design

Two weeks ago, courtesy of Bank of America, I scored a free admission to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Once the iconic metal tag had been safely fastened to my shirt, I started roaming the halls of neoclassical glory, with art spanning 5,000 years of civilization.

It wasn’t long before I decided a museum with over 2 million works of art can be overwhelming. Which is why I decided to catch a guided tour of Buddhist art by Nancy Eder, a lecturer at City College.

We started in the gallery of South and Southeast Asian art, stopping first at an early example of Indian Buddhist art (see left). Although I’m not a newcomer to Buddhist art, I still learned a few things, like how the Buddha’s likeness was not created until the 2nd or 1st century BC, 300 years after the death of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha. The absence of iconic portraiture, our guide explained, was attributable to early Buddhists, who believed they did not need the Buddha’s likeness to follow his teachings.

So what were the catalysts behind Buddhist art? I really wanted to know, because if it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t have the wealth of paintings and sculptures that eventually traversed the Himalayas, to find its way into the imaginations of artisans in China, Korea, and Japan. Can you imagine Bangkok’s Wat Pho without its huge Reclining Buddha, or Japan without the Great Buddha of Kamakura?

After some research, I unexpectedly discovered that the most iconic of Asian religions can trace its art to not Eastern but Western roots. I was completely taken by surprise to learn that the earliest Buddhist relics, found in Pakistan and Afghanistan, were created by Greeks, whose culture of creating form and likeness revolutionized portrayal of the Buddha, who was previously shown in symbols, such as an empty throne or a spinning wheel. It was Greco-Roman culture that gave the Buddha his pivotal makeover.

So, the next time you’re in a world-class museum, you’ll know this much: Buddhist art is iconically Asian, but the portrayal of form so celebrated in Greek and Roman art helped ancient Buddhists to create an image of their savior.


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