Seated Shaka, a 10th-century wooden sculpture from Japan (Photo Courtesy: Roli Books)
A NEW BODY OF critical viewing of Buddhist sculptures comes alive in the summer of this year at the hallowed nine galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, titled the Tree and Serpent: Early Buddhist Art in India, the exhibition is accompanied by an extremely elegant and insightful catalogue edited by John Guy.
Close on the heels of the catalogue I received a copy of RM Woodward’s Buddhism: A Journey through Art. The book is accompanied by a host of Buddhist images from collections all abroad and it features a selection of over 300 images of Buddhist art from antiquity to modern times that traverse the rich history and diversity of art in Buddhism. Tracing the origins from India, the propagation of Buddhism in the cultural diaspora across the continent is highlighted through antiquities and iconographies of Buddhist art.
The images are painstakingly sourced from museums across the western world, such as the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Rijksmuseum, the Walters Art Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Brooklyn Museum, the Freer Gallery of Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, National Gallery of Victoria, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design and the Saint Louis Art Museum. A majority of 180 photographs of Buddhist art are sourced from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, some of which are on display at the exhibition, Tree and Serpent.
Through the book, Woodward chronicles Buddhist art and artefacts dating from the first century to the present. Woodward honed her interest in sacred and ancient art and spent a decade studying theology and religion. Her main focus of research is Eastern philosophies, Buddhism, and artwork that emerged from these concepts.
The iconography and the image of Buddha evolved and gained prominence all around the world, becoming a remarkable representation of peace and symbolising wisdom. The author credits Buddhist art for changing the artistic landscape of central Asia and organising a rich artistic tradition. The book expands on this theme by presenting an unprecedented and opulently illustrated exploration of Buddhist art and artefacts spanning from the earliest days of the faith to the modern era. The rich words of Woodward and her narrative in the book prove to be an exquisite testament to the profound cultural exchange facilitated by Buddhism’s diffusion across Asia.
Art plays a vital role in the dissemination of Buddhist religious life. It serves as a practical tool of worship and the basis of a wider visual path to liberation. The artistic landscape of Asia became enriched by Buddhism, which was partly responsible for the exchange and transmission of artistic ideas between cultures. The different schools of Buddhism also added to the dynamic creative interpretations of the faith. Introducing Buddhist artefacts, sculptures, and paintings, spanning over thousands of years, this book is a comprehensive catalogue chronicling the fascinating and varied history of Buddhist art.
Woodward begins her discourse from a period dating back to 2500 years, introducing the legends associated with the birth of Gautam Buddha and further explores the origins of Buddhism, identifying the schools of Buddhism that revolve around the three main sects namely Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana. She identifies the earliest representation of Buddha taking shape through symbols and objects. She traces the iconography of Buddhist figures back to the stone friezes of the first century BCE. There are a variety of materials that are used and the birth of the iconic image of Buddha points to regions such as Gandhara, Amaravati and Mathura. The dress represents the influence of Roman and Greek ideas and indicates a connection to Hellenistic art.
Another subcategory of Buddhist art brought to light is the Tantric movement, which inspired the artwork of India, China, Tibet and Nepal. Art became an important instrument for teaching, meditating and spiritual development, thus leading to the rise of Tantric Buddhism or Vajrayana which developed its own art style. Tibetan Buddhism highlights the significance of physical representation within the faith and religious practices.
Notably, the trajectory of Buddhism and art reached its peak in the Gupta period of India, known as the ‘Golden Age’ of Buddhism, as it established an admirable image of Buddha that became widespread throughout Asia. At this point, Woodward walks the crossroads of the international interplay of interpretations of Buddhist art. The visual narrative unfolds through a gallery of stunning photographs, each meticulously chosen to underscore the profound historical and artistic significance of every featured piece. Within these pages, readers will discern the unique stylistic nuances and iconographic intricacies of these treasures, all set within their rich cultural and historical contexts.
Woodward mentions how Southeast Asian countries made their own contribution in establishing various forms within Buddhist art. Not too far away from the homeland, the prominent neighbour of India, China started off by creating sculptures, that developed during the Tang Dynasty and Qing Dynasty, where the rulers were more supportive of Tibetan and Buddhist art and held the largest commission of Buddhist art.
The author next calls attention to Japan, the country that has borrowed and shared various cultural aspects with China and Korea, and art was no exception. The popularity of Buddhist ideologies spread through Central Asia and Buddhist missionaries became a medium to carry knowledge and art forward. This further evolved into what popularly came to be known as the Zen art movement.
In its entirety, Buddhism: A Journey through Art, serves as a testament to the breathtaking diversity and exceptional craftsmanship that has characterised the artistic output of Buddhist communities across Asia over the course of two millennia. It invites readers to immerse themselves in the captivating visual mythology, sculptural masterpieces, and iconic representations that have emerged from Buddhist enclaves scattered across the globe.
An artist and writer, Woodward through her elegant writing, recognises art as a crucial element that was essential for “the early dissemination of Buddhist philosophy across Asia”.
The book is an interesting addition for all those interested in art, particularly Buddhist art, iconography and symbolism. The design is simple and elegant with no fuss, giving the reader’s eye enough time to absorb and digest.
The images present a range of ideas, which are part of six well-defined thematic sections that include Tantric and Esoteric Buddhist art, Gandharan Sculpture, depictions of Buddha, Bodhisattvas, Monks, Lamas and Arhats, Temples and Artefacts.
Buddhism combines practical counsel with profound mysticism in a perspective of life, which offers a pragmatic and philosophical approach to the human condition. The text and illustrations in the book immerse the readers in an aesthetic exploration of the practice, ritual, meditation, and devotion of varied Buddhist traditions.
The much required eight-page glossary unpacks the lesser-known terminologies of Buddhist deities, scriptures, and other terms referencing Buddhist philosophical terminology. This book bridges the gap between the textual and visual aspects of Buddhism. Woodward skilfully connects the dots between Buddhist scriptures and corresponding artistic representation allowing the reader to delve deeper into Buddhist art.