This grey-schist Buddhist sculpture represents the transformation of the Buddha iconography and the impact of cultural influences, specifically Hellenistic culture. Before the first century B.C.E., most images associated with Buddhism represented symbols of Buddha. Beginning in the Gandhara region, present day Northern Pakistan and Eastern Afghanistan, [See Ball 2008, 111] artisans began depicting Buddha’s human form. [See Rowland 1976, 9]
One of the earliest images of Buddha, this sculpture was created between 100-300 C.E. and discovered in the nineteenth century at Jamal-Gahri, present day Pakistan. In 1895, Eustace Smith donated the sculpture to the British Museum , where it continues to be on display. [British Museum, Object Details ]
Most Gandharan sculpture implemented schist as the primary medium. [See BBC- A History of the World in 100 Objects-Episode 41 ] When light shines directly onto the stone, it “glints and gleams”[See BBC- A History of the World in 100 Objects-Episode 41 ] due to crystal fragments in the stone. In present day Afghanistan [See Chicarelli 2004, 69], Schist was abundant throughout the mountains and came in many colors [See Chicarelli 2004, 69). This sculpture, in particular, is composed of grey schist and local artisans carved the sculpture. [British Museum, Object Details ]
Beginning in the 1850’s, Buddhist sculptures, such as this, were uncovered in present day Pakistan and Afghanistan. [See BBC- A History of the World in 100 Objects-Episode 41 ] Most discoveries were purely coincidental or uncovered while looting [See Ball 2008, 115]. The exact date of the discovery of this particular sculpture is unknown, but based on British Museum records, it was excavated in Jamal Garhi. In 1895, Eustace Smith , an avid art collector, [See Eustace Smith, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography] donated this piece to the British Museum. To date, this is the only piece Eustace Smith donated to the museum. This sculpture remains on display at the British Museum. [British Museum, Object Details ]
Local Historical ContextEdit
This sculpture was created during the Kushan Empire , [See British Museum, Object Details ] which lasted from the first century B.C.E. to the third century B.C.E. [See Ball 2008, 78-81] The Kushan Empire encompassed the entire northwestern India territory. [See Ball 2008, 78] Gandhara, a region located in the Kushan Empire, was considered “ a crossroads for a broad spectrum of cultural currents.” [See Chicarelli 2004, 67] This region experienced cultural infusion, especially Hellenistic influences.
With these new cultural integrations, trade, religion, and art flourished during this time. For instance, international trade thrived in the Kushan Empire. [See Ball 2008, 80] The Kushan economy was one of only three economies throughout the world that had gold-based currencies. [See Ball 2008, 80] During this time, a new school of Buddhism was forming: Mahayana . Unlike Theravada , Mahayana reinterpreted the dharma , expanded the role of the bodhisattva , and introduced the concept of the “Pure Land. ” [See Chicarelli 2004, 60-63] The Silk Road enabled Buddhist missionaries and monks to spread Buddhism. [See BBC- A History of the World in 100 Objects, Episode 41 ] In addition, Hellenistic and Roman culture influenced Gandharan art [See Chicarelli 2004, 65]. For instance, many Western artisans entered Gandhara and began to sculpt distinct Hellenistic features [See Rowland 1965, 117 ] especially in the face and clothing [See Chicarelli 2004, 69]. By combining Buddhism and art into images, missionaries were able to use these images to spread Buddhism despite a language barrier. [See BBC- A History of the World in 100 Objects, Episode 41 ] Furthermore, these sculptures of Buddha assisted followers to reach enlightenment by picturing Buddha in his or her mind. [See BBC- A History of the World in 100 Objects, Episode 41 ] Generally, sculptures such as this, sat in front of stupas . [See BBC- A History of the World in 100 Objects, Episode 41 ] These sculptures would have various themes and meaning, but would serve as “visual texts” [See Kinnard 2006, 49] to portray either Buddha’s life or his teachings. Ultimately, these objects served as an outlet for ritual worship. [See Kinnard 2006, 49]
Within a broad spectrum of world history, this sculpture symbolizes the transformation of the Buddha image and the influence of other cultures. Originally, images of Buddha were symbolic of his life, such as footprints and the bodhi tree , [See BBC- A History of the World in 100 Objects, Episode 41 ] but with the spread of Mahayana and Hellenistic influences, Buddhist art began to portray images of the Buddha. [See Chicarelli 2004, 64] Creating the image of Buddha began during the first century B.C.E. in two locations: Mathura and Gandhara [See Rowland 1976, 9]. Through the images of Buddha, Mahayana believers could undergo spiritual devotions and they believed Buddha resided in the image and could achieve spiritual merit. [See Chicarelli 2004, 64] These images were initially carved near stupas. [See BBC- A History of the World in 100 Objects, Episode 41 ]
With the Hellenistic and Roman influences, Gandhara sculpture portrayed various Greek and Roman art. [ See Chicarelli 2004, 65] For instance, the face resembles the Greek god Apollo , and the robe is similar to a Greek toga with the many folds. Furthermore, the wavy hair is also adopted from Greek culture. [ See Chicarelli 2004, 69]
During this same time, Christian iconography was also developing. Early third century C.E. paintings in Roman catacombs are the earliest examples. [See Early Christian Art and Architecture 2010 ] Initially, Jesus was represented with symbols, such as a fish and a cross, and it was not until later that his image became represented. [See Early Christian Art and Architecture, Funk and Wagnalls ] Thus, Jesus and Buddha both were portrayed through symbols before they were depicted through images.
This sculpture didn’t circulate through world trade, but the image of Buddha spread with the assistance from the many travelers who visited Gandhara and then continued to travel by the Silk Road. Thus, the image was able to spread across the world, and in effect, the Buddhist religion grew into a universal religion. To date, the image of Buddha remains one of the most recognized and iconic images in the world. [See BBC- A History of the World in 100 Objects, Episode 41 ]
Ball, Warwick. The Monuments of Afghanistan: History, Archaeology, and Architecture. London: I.B. Tauris, 2008, 78-115.
Chicarelli, Charles F. Buddhist Art: An Illustrated Introduction. Chang Mai, Thailand: Silkworm Books, 2004, 3-70.
Jacob, Kinnard N. The Emergence of Buddhism. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2006, 49.
Rowland, Benjamin, Junior. Introduction to The Evolution of the Buddha Image, by Benjamin Rowland Junior, 8-9. New York: Asia House Gallery Publication, 1976.
BBC: A History of the World- Episode 41. Accessed April 21, 2011. http://www.bbc.co.uk/ahistoryoftheworld/about/transcripts/episode41/.
"Object Details: The Buddha." British Museum. Accessed April 21, 2011. http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/search_the_collection_database/search_object_details.aspx?objectid=225497&partid=1&searchText=RRI5353&fromADBC=ad&toADBC=ad&numpages =10&orig=%2fresearch%2fsearch_the_collection_database.aspx¤tPage=1.
Rowland, Benjamin. "A Cycle of Gandhara." Bulletin of the Museum of Fine Arts 63, no. 333 (1965): 117.