Image that is recognized all around the world, name that does not take time remembering when that image is seen, a half naked man sitting in a meditative pose – some god, as seen by most people, Buddha is a messenger of internal peace that has as much of a story behind him as Jesus or Allah. Religions iconography and gods represented in sculptures always have a great deal of symbolism involved in them. Nothing ordinary person would look into these days until the topic is confronted unavoidably through a class or a show in a museum, which I was lucky enough to take a part of recently.
Every Buddhist statue tells a story of its own. Educated person can say where the statue comes from and which time period it comes from just by looking at certain features, which proves the unique developments in eastern art, art that is so similar and different at the same time. Statues originating from same countries a lot of times are made of the same materials and are decorated in ways that trace throughout the region. For example there are three major features that characterize the Luang Prabang Buddha in comparison to those of the neighboring countries. The usanisa (cranial protuberance) is always embellished with a stylized flame; the earlobe unusually long is shaped like a snail shell; and the urna or divine frontal sign is never represented.
There is something unique about the statuary representations of Buddha that sets Buddhist art apart from the European art developments. Mainly it is the fact that Buddha image has stayed the same over the centuries, unlike European goal of realistic representation has been the main concern and the source of inspiration for the development in the carving techniques.
Although Buddha figures’ natural look, look that indicates life in the body made of rock, Asian statues’ shapes are still abstracted in some way. Chinese representations of Buddha are usually puffier and look inflated if compared to the images originating from such neighboring states as India and Japan where the form looks sharper and the shoulder-to-waist ratio is higher. Despite the abstract form statues’ expressions are still representative of Buddha’s meditative, neutral state of midlife, which captures his state of enlightenment and inner piece.
One can only imagine how many statues there had been made over the centuries of philosophy’s existence. Besides the amount that has been destroyed with time there are thousands, probably millions that still exist and are available for public view and research. Minneapolis Institute of Art offers a wide array of examples that vary in styles, origins and time of production. I cannot leave unmentioned the fact that out of all the exhibits I have not seen enough examples of statue capturing Buddha’s moment of enlightenment under the sacred fig tree called Bodhi. Just like the cross Jesus was crucified upon, signifying the most important event in Christian history, that was an essential moment of Buddhist philosophy. The fact that there are not enough examples of that event occurring in statues displayed is obscuring for the further understanding of Buddhist culture. This is enhanced by absence of figures of Buddha with a sun disc or a halo behind his head.
Variety of mediums and carving techniques that are used on the statues are made is evident of development in ancient sculptors’ skillfulness. Wooden sculpture of a seated Amida Buddha which originates in the late 12th century, the one viewer sees first after entering the exhibition proves this point. Each leaf of the lotus plant Buddha is seating on top of is carved in a delicate manner. The draperies and hair texture pick up the elaborate style and flow along with the lotus in a single composition. This is usual of Japanese art.
Cultural differences are evident in treatment of draperies and hair. Examples originating from the Middle East, from such countries as Pakistan and Afghanistan, are usually representative of a rougher treatment of creases evolving out of the drapery worn by Buddha. The edges of the curves as sharp and hair texture is reflected it in a wavy pattern, which is similar to the one of Chinese way of carving. Indian statues, on the other hand, are a lot smoother. Number of straight edges and dress creases is reduced to a minimum. The figure looks like as if it was wearing weightless and see-through clothes. Which set this style apart from the other regions’ styles.
Despite the fact that Buddhism is a well-spread religion, and is practiced in quite a few different regions of the world, and the visual differences in representing Buddha, the religion’s traditions are consistent throughout most of them, unlike it is in Christianity where people somehow manage to believe in the same person in different ways, causing all the disagreement and conflicts.