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Parting the Curtain: Asian Art Revealed

Buddhist Imagery of India and Tibet

Unknown artist, India, Unknown artist, India, Gandhara: Buddha, 2nd or 3rd century; gray schist; 41 3/4 in. high; on long-term loan from a private collection.

Unknown artist, Tibet: Bhaishajyaguru or Medicine Buddha, 15th century; gilt bronze; on long-term loan from a private collection.

Unknown artist, India: Buddha, 11th century; black stone; on long-term loan from a private collection.

Buddhism is the single thread that links Asia in a shared tradition from India across the Himalayas to East Asia and through Sri Lanka to Southeast Asia. In the artistic realm we witness various expressions of a single being, at first historical in the form of an Indian prince, Siddhartha, who lived in the sixth century BCE, and later in the multiple manifestations of this personage. Buddhism thrived because it adapted and accepted the native belief systems it encountered, and because it evolved with those systems and remained relevant to the local population. Buddhism values wisdom and compassion above all else, and as can be appreciated in the exhibition, images of the Buddha are intended to express these concepts.

Gandhara, in the historical region of northwestern India, is the source for some of the earliest and most stunning images of Buddha, as evidenced by the large stone carving at the entrance to Gallery 4. Seated in meditation with downcast gaze, the image exudes the clarity and repose of a powerful internal peace. Gandhara was situated at a crossroads of mighty civilizations, and art produced there, such as this figure, reflects Hellenistic stylistic influences in the sharply chiseled features of the face, the deeply carved robes draped in perfect symmetry, and the tightly curled hair. Indications of the exceptional nature of this second- or third-century Buddha are expressed by the urna, a mark in the center of the forehead; the usnisa, a skull protuberance that is shown as a part of the hair; and the long earlobes, a characteristic of highborn noblemen of India, whose ears were stretched by heavy jewels.

The spread of Buddhism north into Tibet occurred in the eleventh and twelfth centuries via India and Nepal. A perfect example of the style adapted by craftsmen in Tibet is the Pala period black stone stele of Buddha in bhumisparsa mudra (gesture), in which his right hand reaches out to touch the earth. Other examples of the transitional style of this period can be seen in a gilt copper image of Manjusri, the bodhisattva of wisdom, from twelfth-century Nepal, and in the stone carving of Vajravidarna, the Primordial Buddha, from eleventh- or twelfth-century India or Tibet. Among the many Tibetan Buddhist sculptures in this exhibition that reflect their Indian stylistic origin, none is more compelling than the large gilt bronze Baishajyguru or Medicine Buddha from the fourteenth century. Over a foot high, it exemplifies the perfect proportional harmony of form and the graceful projection of serenity expected in an image expressing healing and well-being.

All the exceptional objects in this section of Gallery 4 are on long-term loan from a private collection.

Julia M. White
Senior Curator of Asian Art