The Face of the Buddha
By Ed Voves
Original Photography by Anne Lloyd
The life journey of Siddharta Gautama, from crown prince of the Sakya Kingdom in ancient India to the transcendent status as the Buddha, is one of the most important spiritual events in world history. The depiction of the events in Buddha's life and his path to enlightenment is vitally significant in the story of art, as well.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art is currently presenting a magnificent exhibition of early Buddhist art, entitled Tree & Serpent. The Met's exhibit stresses the importance of the rise of Buddhist art in the southern region of India known as the Deccan.
Since Buddhism later spread southward to Sri Lanka and then to Southeast Asia, the importance of the role of the Deccan is very important, indeed. The way that Buddhism evolved as a religion and the manner in which it is presented in terms of visual art still bear the impress of the Deccan experience, from 200 BCE to the year 400 of our current era.
It is a complex story, however, as I commented in my initial review of Tree & Serpent - although one which the Metropolitan curators, led by John Guy, the Met's great scholar of South Asian art, present in a very cogent and insightful way.
The Tree & Serpent exhibition exceeded almost all of my expectations. Yet, I was left with a perplexing question regarding the profoundly moving statues of the enlightened Buddha, grouped together in the final gallery of the exhibition.
Here in the radiantly-gold gallery at the end of the exhibit were images of the Buddha which conform to what non-specialists in Asian art – like myself – regard as “Buddhist art.”
The art on view in the preceding galleries of Tree & Serpent is very different in format from these statues of the Buddha. Where was the connection between the earlier sculpted narrative reliefs showing scenes from the life of the Buddha and these serene, solitary sculptures?
The complex wrinkle in the story of Buddhist art is mainly due, I believe, to the fact that the Buddha preached religious truths which, initially, had little regard for aesthetic or artistic concerns.
“Beauty is nothing to me,” the Buddha proclaimed in his earliest sermons, the Dasadhamma Sutta, “neither the beauty of the body, nor that which comes from dress.”
India, however, is a land bursting with fertility. Life force is strong and vigorous, demanding forms of visual representation which Buddhism, for all of its otherworldly austerity, eventually embraced. The ancient nature cults which existed prior to Buddhism were co-opted, as we can see in such works as the lively, erotically-charged statue of Śrī Lakṣmī, Goddess of Abundance,
If the devotees of Buddhism made an accommodation with nature deities like Śrī Lakṣmīi, there still existed a “bridge too far” which they did not cross for nearly five hundred years. The depiction of the Buddha's physical likeness remained a "taboo" practice across much of the time period covered by Tree & Serpent.
As numerous carved bas-reliefs show, there was no prohibition on presenting scenes from the life and the legend of the Buddha. But the Buddha had to be represented symbolically. A sacred flame, a pair of footprints, a Dharma wheel or an empty throne, these are what was permissible for an artist to use to denote the Buddha's presence.
Clearly represented on the railing pillar medallion, above, are the Bodhi tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment, two kneeling female devotees and the throne seat (āsana) marking the spot where the Buddha sat, but no image of the Buddha.
That is how this most important feature of Buddhist art continued to be treated, even when the great emperor, Ashoka (304-232 BCE), ruler over much of the Indian subcontinent, embraced Buddhism. An empty throne is not exactly an image which a mighty monarch is likely to favor. Yet, so it remained.
Shortly before Ashoka's reign began, another contender for dominion over India appeared. Alexander the Great seized control of several provinces in the upper Indus Valley, along with much of present day Afghanistan, on the dubious premise that these regions had been ruled by the Persians, whose empire he had overthrown.
With Alexander's army, marched Hellenistic art and culture. The actual Macedonian/Greek occupation of Indian territory was brief, outliving Alexander by only a few years. Hellenistic culture was more resilient, in part because some of Alexander's outposts in Afghanistan evolved into small Greek-speaking kingdoms. Greek art in the east, generally referred to as the art of Gandhara from the name of its most productive locale, remained a creative force for several centuries.
Over the years, a lively, often heated, debate has contested whether the example of Greek Gandhara art motivated Buddhist artists to begin painting or sculpting portraits of the Buddha, thus abolishing the age-old ban.
Indian scholars and art curators have countered claims that the introduction of Greek art initiated life-like portraiture of the Buddha and standards of artistic realism in the subcontinent. Indian artists, including those working in the Deccan, had long been creating images of gods and men evoking naturalism of a very high order, particularly in the monumental likenesses of nature deities known as yakshas and yakshis.
This "pro-India" stance is based on convincing evidence. However, one has only to leave the Tree & Serpent exhibition and walk to the Met's Asian Art Galleries to find brilliant examples of Gandhara sculptures which seemingly resolve this issue in favor of the Greeks.
The Met's Gandhara treasures are such an "embarrassment of riches" that it would be difficult to pick one or two to make the case for the decisive influence of Greek art on the evolution of Buddhist portraiture.
High on the list of such Gandharan masterpieces is the astonishing statue of the Buddha (above), dating to the 3rd century. Scholars believes that this Buddha was made for the Takht-i-bahi Monastery, located near the strategic Khyber Pass which gave access to trade routes to central Asia and China's Silk Road.
Sculpted in grey schist, a dense and difficult stone to carve, this Buddha evokes the spirit and form of images of Apollo which intrepid Greeks erected wherever they journeyed throughout the ancient world.
And not just the Greeks but Roman merchants, too, brought Western influences to India via the flourishing seaborne trade for spices during the first to third centuries, the age of the Pax Romana.
The Tree & Serpent exhibition displays several examples of Roman provincial-quality metal objects which reached India as part of this long-distance commerce. But even more intriguing from the standpoint of the present essay is a small bronze Buddha, dating to the first to mid-second centuries. It is currently displayed in the Met's Asian galleries.
With his head framed by a distinctive, serrated halo and his hand held-up in a gesture of welcome, this small statue reflects the spirituality of Buddhism. The Met's leading scholar on Gandharan art, Kurt Behrendt, has made a close study of this work of art. Behrendt traced "numerous connections with Roman imperial portraits of the first century A.D., especially those of Nero..."
That the deranged emperor, Nero, might serve as a model for the Buddha is an alarming thought. But the fact that this bronze statue was made in Gandhara, not imported from Rome, shows that Western art conventions were indeed influencing the way that the face of the Buddha was being portrayed by artists in the northern areas of the Indian subcontinent.
In the final analysis, there is no need or reason to make an "either/or" choice, Gandharan or Deccan, as the decisive influence in the revolutionary shift in the portraiture of the Buddha. Vital contributions were made across the artistic landscape, east and west.
If special credit is due to any particular group it should be accorded to an obscure tribe from the Eurasian steppes who literally galloped in, seemingly from out-of-nowhere: the Kushans.
On view in the last gallery of Tree & Serpent is an unusual Buddha, physically imposing, with the commanding presence of a warrior rather than a mystic or a sage. Buddha Granting Protection dates to the early second century when the Kushans, who commissioned this statue, were doing the same thing, protecting the people they had conquered, Against all expectations, Kushan rule brought political security, economic growth and religious freedom to Afghanistan and northern India, two of the most embattled regions of the world.
The Kushans were originally part of a confederation of Indo-European nomads, wandering with their herds on China's western frontier. Early in the first century, the Kushans were pushed-out by more numerous tribes into the arid Bactrian Desert. Formidable horsemen, the Kushans launched a hard-hitting campaign, overwhelming the vulnerable Greek kingdoms in Afghanistan and then seizing a small, but strategic, slice of northern India.
At that point, the Kushans could have indulged in an orgy of massacres and scorched earth, similar to what the Huns and Mongols would later unleash. Instead, the Kushans showed enormous respect for the Greek and Indian populations now under their hegemony. The Kushans used their control of the Khyber Pass to encourage trade and travel, enriching themselves and their neighbors, including China, in the process.
The greatest of the Kushan kings, Kanishka I, who reigned from 127-150, added to these tremendous achievements by embracing Buddhism and encouraging Buddhist art. He placed a portrait of the Buddha on the reverse side of his gold coinage, the Buddha standing in a pose similar to that of Buddha Granting Protection, on view at the Met.
As befitted a ruler of vast domains, Kanishka maintained two capital cities. Peshawar was located near the Khyber Pass in the heart of the Gandhara region. The second was Mathura, a major Buddhist center in the Indian province which the Kushans ruled. Flourishing schools of art were maintained in both cities, each with a distinctive style of art.
Art in the Gandhara region under the Kushans maintained the stylistic elements of the Greco/Roman art we have been examining in this essay. Artists of the Mathura school, however, developed conventions of portraying the Buddha and saintly Buddhist figures, the Bodhisattvas, that were more in keeping with the earliest expressions of Buddhist art from southern India.
The Mathura school of art would ultimately be the more successful, influencing Buddhist art throughout Asia. But we should not think in terms of "winners and losers" when we reflect on the differences in style between Gandharan portraits of the Buddha and those of the Mathuran artists. Kushan rulers like Kanishka permitted freedom of expression, indeed encouraged it, and the artists of both schools responded by searching their hearts and souls to create portraits of the Buddha, images of sanctity and devotion, which people of all faiths can appreciate.
In his reflection on Civilization, Kenneth Clark called the Arena Chapel in Padua, Italy, the site of Giotto's fresco paintings, "one of the world's holy places." Without exaggeration, I think that the Met's Gallery 999, where Tree & Serpent is currently displayed, is such a sacred place, as well.
Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved Original photography, copyright of Anne Lloyd, all rights reserved
Introductory Image: Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Buddha (detail), Alluru, Andhra Pradesh, 3rd century. Limestone: H. 39 3/4 in. × W.13 in. × D. 6 1/4 in.(101 cm × 33 cm × 16.5 cm) National Museum, New Delhi
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Gallery view of the Tree & Serpent: Early Buddhist Art in India, 200 BCE-400 CE exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) A view of the concluding gallery the Tree & Serpent exhibition, showing statues of the Buddha from the 2nd to 7th centuries.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Statue of the Buddha, Nelakondapalli monastic region, 3rd century, lent by State Museum, Hyderbad, India; Temple step ("moonstone") from Sri Lanka, ca.8th century, lent from a private collection.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Śrī Lakṣmī, Goddess of Abundance (excavated at Jamālpur mound), 2nd century. Sandstone: H. 41 in. × W. 12 in. × D. 11 in.(104.1 cm.× 30.5 cm.× 27.9 cm) National Museum, New Delhi
Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2023) Railing Pillar Medallion: Tree Shrine Marking the Buddha’s wakening, ca. 150 –100 BCE. Sandstone: 27 in.× 19 1/2 in. × 6 3/4 in. (68.6 cm × 49.5 cm × 17.1 cm) .Excavated at Bharhut, Madhya Pradesh, ca. 1873. Indian Museum, Kolkata (inv. 294)
Unknown Artist, Hellenistic Greek. A Statuette of a Rider Wearing an Elephant Hide Cloak, possibly Alexander the Great, 3rd century BCE. Bronze: 9 3/4 in. (24.8 cm) Metropolitan Museum of Art. #55.11.11
Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2023) Head of a Yaksha, from Mathura, 1st century BCE. Sandstone: H. 19 in. (48.2 cm); W. 15 3/4 in. (40 cm); D. 14 in. (35.6 cm) Lent by Cleveland Museum of Art.
Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2023) Head of a Yaksha, from Sanchi Stupa, Madhya Pradesh, 1st century. Sandstone: H. 11 5/8 in. (29.5 cm); W. 6 1/8 in. (15.5 cm); D. 5 7/8 in. (15 cm) Lent by Staatliche Museen, Berlin.
Unknown Artist, Gandhara. Buddha, from the Takht-i-bahi Monastery, 3rd century. Schist: H 36 1/2 in. (92.7 cm); W. 11 in. (27.9 cm); D. 5 1/2 in. (14 cm) Metropolitan Museum, #2014.188
Unknown artist, Gandhara. Seated Buddha, 1st to mid-2nd century. Bronze with traces of gold leaf: H. 6 5/8 in. (16.8 cm); W. 4 1/2 in. (11.4 cm); D. 4 in. (10.2 cm) Metropolitan Museum, #2003.593.1
Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2023) Buddha Granting Protection, from Mathura, Kushan dynasty, early 2nd century. Sandstone: H. 16 3/4 in. (42.5 cm); W. 13 in. (33 cm); D. 6 1/2 in. (16.5 cm) Metropolitan Museum, lent from a private collection.
Unknown artist, Mathura, North India. Crowned Bodhisattva, late Kushan dynasty, 3rd–early 4th century. Sandstone: H. 16 3/4 in. (42.5 cm); W. 13 in. (33 cm); D. 6 1/2 in. (16.5 cm) Metropolitan Museum #2016.701
Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2023) Gallery view of the Tree & Serpent Exhibition, showing a Buddha statue, 3rd century, and a Temple step ("moonstone") from Sri Lanka, ca. 8th century.