The Iconography of the Buddha Image

Category: Buddha, Buddhism, Sculpture
Last Updated: 12 Mar 2023
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For the following report the concept of iconography in regard to the images of Buddha from the South Asia region (1-5 cc. A. D. ) is important. In general, iconography in art stands for studying the imagery or symbolism of the work of art; in regard to the Asian Buddha images, iconographical elements provide the worshipper and observer with multiple signs to differentiate between unique Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. There is a hot discourse in research literature about the nature and developmental stages of Buddhist iconography.

Up to the 2-3 c. A. D. , Buddhist art used to be predominantly narrative consisting of jatakas (accounts of the Buddha’s previous incarnations) and nidanakathas (historical events related to the founder of religion, Buddha Shakyamuni or Prince Siddhartha Gautama). Due to the very nature of Buddhism, its iconography has been associated with aniconic symbols for a long time. Once Jain claimed that before its material anthropomorphic transformations the Buddha icon used to be initially of intellectual and imaginative nature.

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The idea echoes somehow with Diskul and Lyons’s proposition about the iconography in regard to the Buddha image standing for the goals of maintaining traditions and sacrificing exuberant decorative elements for the sake of immortality, sanctity and transitivity of Buddhism. However, the Buddha image is perceived mostly in its anthropomorphic dimension nowadays with a rigid system of metaphors and symbols standing for iconographical elements. All the researchers agree on the fact that the image of Buddha as anthropomorphic icon started being created approximately in the 1st century A.

D. The gold and copper coins of Kanishka (Appendix A) contain Buddha images on the reverse sides. It is logical to assume that those images were simple and rather abstract because of the small size of those coins. During the five centuries of modern era, the iconography of the Buddha image has been made rich and complicated. According to Diskul and Lyons, there are three key elements in the iconography of the Buddha image: these are anatomy, dress, and posture.

Diskul and Lyons mentioned that the anatomy of the Buddha encompassed “the canons of proportion and the form of the supernatural details”; the dress might look either as the monk's garb (being placed on either both shoulders or the left shoulder only), or a princely garment (though in all the cases the elements of dressing are highly stylized); and, so far as postures are concerned, Buddha was portrayed as either walking, or standing, or sitting, or reclining, not to forget “less than a dozen usual gestures of the hand”.

In Jain’s chronology of the Buddhist iconography, the researcher listed the specific elements of Sarnath Buddha images (3-4 cc. A. D. ) with their graceful and beautifully shaped bodies within eight iconographical types depending on the scheme of the dress (either the covered one with both shoulders being draped, or the open one with the right shoulder being bare) and the four gesture patterns.

Meanwhile, the Huntington Photographic Archive of Buddhist and Related Art ignored anatomy and dress, concentrating instead on sacred bodily marks (lakshanas) and attributes (objects held by or belonging to the figure) or associated objects as the media through which the icon communicated to the observer. For the posture category, the Huntington Archive proposed the sub-division into postures per se (the one of sitting body is called asana, and the one of standing is sthana) and gestures (position of the hands, mudra, and position of the arms, hasta).

The Grove Art Online derived the iconography of the Buddha from the one of pre-Buddhist yakss with 32 major and 64 minor prescribed signs; five gestures (mudras) – fearlessness (abhaya mudra), bestowing boons (varada mudra), meditation (dhyana mudra), touching the earth (bhumisparsa mudra) and turning the Wheel of Law; and three main postures – the one with crossed legs is called adamantine (vajraparyanka), the one where the Buddha is sitting with one leg placed across the other thigh is sattvaparyank asana, and the one with both legs hanging down is referred to as bhadrasana.

Whatever the iconographical systematizations are, the image of the Buddha has been developing from abstractly carved prototypes to the detailed icons of magnitude and aesthetic recklessness. Under the Kushan dynasty that ruled from about the first to the seventh centuries A. D. in Afghanistan, north-western India, the Punjab, and in present-day Pakistan, there were two distinctive schools of portraying Buddha: the Gandhara and the Mathura ones.

While in the north (Gandhara) the images of Buddha belonged to wandering craftsmen from the Roman East, in the south (Mathura or Muttra) the technique derived itself from native Indian sources. Both schools, though being distinct in iconographical elements and methods, portrayed Buddha both standing, seated or reclining (in scenes of the Great Demise); either as a single and independent image or the one of the figures on panels. The earliest image of the Gandhara Buddhas Rowland referred to the second and third centuries A.

D. judging from inscriptions. In regard to the standing Buddhas, there is one key characteristic of Gandhara images – though on the very first sight they look like reliefs, they can not be observed from the back, their back side is usually flat and unfinished. As for the material used, craftsmen carved the statues from stone and stucco or lime-plaster. The latter was popular in the first century A. D. already, and by the third century A. D. it has replaced stone.

Another favourite medium for carving was the blue schist and green phyllite, while metal was less popular. Besides artists used to decorate both stone and stucco images with polychromy and gold leaf. In Mathura the sculptures were also covered in an analogous manner because craftsmen usually carved the statues of Buddha of red sandstone, which was “an exceedingly ugly stone, frequently marred by veins of yellow and white, so that streaks and spots of these lighter colours disfigure the surface”.

The researcher may compare two schools of portraying Buddha on the basis of the Gandhara Standing Buddha from the Guides' Mess at Hoti-Mardan, near Peshawar, and a life-sized standing Bodhisattva of Sarnath with an inscription about a certain Friar Bala dedicating the sculpture to the deity in around A. D. 131-147 (Appendices B and C). One distinctive point between the two sculptures is anatomical proportion. The Gandhara school adhered to the antique canons when the total height of the body was five times bigger that the head after late Roman and Early-Christian models.

The Mathura school adopted special unit of measurement, the thalam, which had nothing in common with human physical anatomy. It is “the distance between the top of the forehead and the chin, which is divided nine times into the total height of the figure” to convey the heroic and superhuman posture. Subsequently, the bodies of the Gandhara standing Buddhas are more harmonic and natural, possessing “the Praxitelean dehanchement […] beneath the robe”, which is also typical of Greco-Roman art.

Meanwhile, the Mathura Bodhisattva is more massive and erect. Modern iconography owes lakshanas of the Buddha to the Mathura school. Rowland stated that whilst the shaping of the body in the Mathura images is “greatly simplified and still represented by the archaic technique of incised lines”, the modelling of the drapery reveals both texture and volume; in result, an observer may sense “the warmth and firmness of flesh and […] a powerful feeling for the presence of the inner breath or prana. ”

In regard to the style of drapery (Diskul and Lyons), the Gandhara Standing Buddha from the Guides' Mess at Hoti-Mardan reminds of a Roman nobleman of the Imperial Period. The eye of an observer catches heavy folds of the dress, which is a kind of Roman toga instead of Buddhist mantle. The Mathura images are often nude to the waist. The Bodhisattva of Sarnath rests his feet firmly on the basement, raising the right hand in the gesture of reassurance, and supporting the folds of his native Indian robe or dhoti by the left hand on the hip.

So far as the physiognomic characteristics are concerned, the Gandhara Buddhas resemble of the Apollo Belvedere due to “the head, with its adolescent features and wavy hair”, though some distinctive Buddhist iconographical elements – the magic marks or lakshanas – may be also present. The Mathura's Buddha images, as Jain pointed out, are more round-faced with underlined “spiritual realization and beatitude. ” There are also physiognomic distinctions between the two schools: In Mathura art tradition, Buddha image has longer earlobes, thicker lips, wider eyes and prominent noses.

In Gandhara images, eyes are longer, chin more angular, earlobes shorter and noses more sharp and better defined. Under the rule of the Gupta dynasty (starting from A. D. 320), the Buddha images became even more anthropomorphic due to Mahayana Buddhism, and, at the same time more sacred due to the sharpening of the Buddha’s superhuman nature and his Oriental origin. In regard to the iconographical systems, the Gupta images are synthetic. For example, the body of Standing Buddha from Mathura (Indian Museum, Calcutta) (Appendix D) is fully covered by the monk’s mantel after the Gandhara models.

At the same time, the folds of initial pseudo-togas gave space to stylized series of strings instead of multiple folds. Rowland provided the link to the classic Mathura school in regard to the rhythmical goal of stringed drapery, stating that “the repetition of the loops […] provides a kind of relief to the static columnar mass of the body. ” At the same time, unlike the early Buddhas of originally Indian type, this Shakyamuni, though being rather voluminous and powerful, is not crude or roughly carved.

Jain noted that the Gupta Buddha images were remarkable for the facial expressions bearing “celestial calm, serenity, a gentle smile, divine glow and unique composure. ” Rowland sang dithyrambs to Gupta Buddhas from Sarnath because of the exquisite carving of their haloes. After having defined the concept of iconography in relation to the Buddha images in South Asia and having traced the development of iconographical systems from the first up to the fifth centuries A. D. , it is possible to summarize the key trends of the craftsmen having been portraying Buddha in the multitude of forms, styles and types.

The first anthropomorphic images of Buddha appeared in the first century A. D. and adopted the iconographical elements of both Greek-Roman Antiquity and native Indian styles. During the Kushan period (25 AD - 150 AD), there were the so-called Gandhara and Mathura (the north-west part of modern Pakistan) schools of portraying the Buddha. The Gandhara Buddhas adopted many iconographical features of antique sculptures in regard to the slightly curved posture, anatomic and physiognomic verity and refinement, heavy and voluminous drapery organized in parallel folds and mask-like expressions of the faces with matted hair on the head.

The early Kushan Buddhas from Mathura were more massive and heavily built than Gandhara ones and demonstrated stricter adherence to the native Indian canons. There was a greater accent on lakshanas and attributes in the Mathura school. Both standing and seated Buddhas were depicted in one of the assigned postures and their gestures bore sacred meaning for the worshippers. The garment looked more like the typical dress of Indian princes with the folds having given space to the strings standing for native muslin or silk dhotis or monastic robes.

The torsos of Mathura Buddhas bore distinctive marks of heroic and sacred life of the Buddha (the marks of wheel, the three white hair between the eyebrows, etc. ). Starting from A. D. 320 within the Gupta period, the iconography of the Buddha images became more synergetic having adopted both Gandhara and Mathura elements. After the Gandhara canon, the proportions were ideal and aimed to produce the effect of magnitude and super-human power. It could happen due to the distinction between the mortal Prince Siddhartha and the “real Buddha” as deity.

The individual parts of the body were depicted in purely Indian manner with the emphasis being made on lakshanas (elongated earlobes, urna, webbed fingers and toes, etc. ) and attributes (lotus, Water bowl, etc. ). The faces of the Gupta Buddhas served the arena for metaphorical transformation: the eyes had the form of the lotus flower, the hair looked like snails or shells, the lips were full and ripe like exotic fruit and there was a mild smile on them, the eyebrows were curved like the Indian bow.

Thus, one may say that since the first century A. D. up to the fifth century the iconography of the Buddha image has been remarkable for the shift from Greek-Roman models to the synthetical type with prevalence of Indian iconographical elements and from anthropomorphic and individualistic depiction to the icon of the super-human mighty deity with traditionally assigned symbols. Bibliography Diskul, M. C. Subhadradis, and Elizabeth Lyons. The Arts of Thailand: A Handbook of the Architecture, Sculpture, and Painting of Thailand (Siam).

Ed. Theodore Robert Bowie. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1960. Huntington, John C. , and/or Susan L. Huntington. The John C. and Susan L. Huntington Archive of Buddhist and Related Art (a photographic research and teaching archive). 15 Oct. 1995/Oct. 2004. College of the Arts, The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio, USA. 13 Jan. 2006 <http://kaladarshan. arts. ohio-state. edu/>. Jain, P. C. “Evolution of the Buddha Image. ” Exotic India Art. May 2004. 13 Jan. 2006 <http://www. exoticindiaart.

com/article/lordbuddha>. “Indian subcontinent, §II, 2: Buddhist iconography and subject-matter, (i) The Buddha. ” Grove Art Online. Oxford University Press, 12 Jan. 2006 <http://www. groveart. com/shared/views/article. html? from=search&session_search_id=802496302&hitnum=1&section=art. 040113. 2. 2. 1>. Rowland, Benjamin. The Art and Architecture of India: Buddhist, Hindu, Jain. London: Penguin Books, 1953. Appendices Appendix A Kanishka Coin (100 B. C. ), gold and copper. Benjamin Rowland, The Art and

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