Dramatic Buddhist sculpture

by Joanna Shaw-Eagle, Washington Times, January 19, 2008

Washington, USA -- "Buddhist Sculpture From Xiangtangshan," on view in the Freer Gallery of Art's Ancient Chinese Sculpture Gallery, is a dramatic preview of early Chinese exhibits planned for renovated gallery spaces in 2010 and 2011. Three of the sculptures exhibited here are from Xiangtangshan's Cave 2, with one Bodhisattva believed to have come from southern Xiangtangshan.

<< "Western Paradise" (above) is the earliest known depiction of the Pure Land paradise in Chinese art during the Northern Qi dynasty.

J. Keith Wilson, the distinguished new curator of ancient Chinese art, was attracted to the Freer because of its early Chinese art holdings, especially the four previously mentioned Northern Qi (A.D. 550-577) limestone sculptures. (The Xiangtangshan archaeological site lies about 15 miles south of present-day Beijing, and visitors can see the best of the Northern Qi style there.)

Mr. Wilson, 51, has admired the style for years.

"The sculptures are special," he says. "In my opinion, they're among the most beautiful of all Chinese Buddhist carvings — and I'm fortunate the gallery owns 16."

There are "many more, about 1,100, ancient Chinese objects in storage," he notes, adding that he plans to "show the best of them in the six new galleries."

Buddhist sculpture arrived in China about A.D. 100, traveling from India to China along the famed Silk Road. The Northern Qi style developed from these earlier models.

Like the Indians, the Chinese carved sacred chapels into rock faces and decorated them with sculptures and paintings in brilliant colors.

Caves similar to the smallish Cave 2 in Xiangtangshan originally may have held the exhibit's tall "Standing Bodhisattva Holding a Lotus Bud," whose serenity and size quickly awe today's visitors, as they did earlier worshippers.

Stylistically, the tall, intensely spiritual Bodhisattva ("Enlightened Being") recalls the more dramatic linearity, flatness and sharp edges of the preceding Northern Wei dynasty (A.D. 320-550).

Here's where the fuller-bodied, fleshy Indian Gupta style evolves into the columnar shapes and introspective meditating of the Northern Qi style.

As in all Buddhist caves, floor-to-ceiling stone friezes covered Cave 2's walls, and the exhibit's very large, horizontally configured "Western Paradise" and "Heavenly Gatherings of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas" were among them.

"Western Paradise" (also known as "The Buddha of Infinite Light") is a centered, yoga-postured image sitting under an elaborate canopy. The frieze's balanced design gives it a spirituality that "Heavenly Gatherings" does not achieve.

Another work, the "Amitabha Buddha," is the earliest known example of a different version of the deity. Gentler and more forgiving than the historic "Shakyamuni Buddha," he welcomes reborn souls struggling up from the pond before him.

Scholars believe the Northern Qi period "Amitabha Buddha" is the "Buddha in the Land of Ultimate Bliss (Pure Land)," in which all beings enjoy unbounded happiness.

"This [era] occurred about 1,000 years after the Shakyamuni's death," Mr. Wilson says.

"Fear of the first millennium, and possibly the world's demise, made the Amitabha's Western Paradise look mighty good in the sixth century," he says with a chuckle.

Mr. Wilson's display of Xiangtangshan sculptures gives visitors a welcome introduction to the future exhibitions and whets their appetites for more.

If you go:

WHAT: "Buddhist Sculptures From Xiangtangshan"
WHERE: Freer Gallery of Art, 12th Street and Independence Avenue Southwest
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily
ONLINE: www.asia.si.edu

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