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An Exhibition of Buddhist Sculpture Through the Dynasties

The Buddha was originally distinguished by thirty-two special marks of perfection (mah purusa laksana) including a golden body. Therefore, images made of wood, molded clay, and stone are all customarily gold gilt, whereby the Buddha's perfection is compared to infinite rays of light. According to the Buddhist sutras, "A gold-colored body is one of the thirty-two favorable marks of the Buddha. The golden rays shine upon the Twenty Eight Heavens, the Eighteen Hells, and the world of the Buddhist deities (from T'ai-tzu jui-ying pen-ch'i ching). The Buddha's golden hue is marvelous, ethereal (from The Sutra of Cause and Effect, Past and Present)."

The Chinese used two major methods to cast bronze images: the piece-mold method and the lost-wax method. Using the piece-mold technique, a clay or sandstone model is covered with a layer of clay, which is cut and removed in two or more pieces to form an outer mold assembly. The outer mold is carved with decor and the outer surface of the model is scraped away; molten bronze is then poured between the model and outer molds. Decoration appears cast inversely on the object's surface. During the Six Dynasties period (317-587), the nimbus behind the head or body of many Buddhist images was cast separately using the piece-mold technique.

The lost-wax casting method involves the use of a wax model which is packed with clay. The wax model melts when the object is heated, escaping through a hole in the clay, to be replaced with molten bronze. Once the bronze has cooled, the clay layer is removed. Exceedingly complex designs can be produced through lost wax casting. By the Sui Dynasty (581-618) piece-mold casting was gradually replaced in favor of lost-wax casting, which has been used consistently thereafter. During the gilding process, a mixture of gold powder and mercury is applied to the surface of the bronze; the mercury evaporates when heated, and the gilding is polished, resulting in an indurate coat. Other details are also added, such as the vivid lines of the Buddha's eyes or the flowing folds in his monastic robe.

Collected works of stone and wood sculpture are typically large-scaled. Historical sources record the existence of abundant lifesize gilt-bronze Buddha images. Nevertheless, throughout periods of Buddhist persecution from the Northern Wei to the T'ang Dynasty, war, and economic decline, many pieces were destroyed or melted down so that the bronze might be reused for other purposes. Consequently, most surviving Buddhist bronzes are less than twenty to thirty centimeters in height. Large-scaled bronzes from the more recent Ming (1368-1644) and Ch'ing (1644-1911) Dynasties still found in Chinese temples are rarer than gilded wood and stone objects which were considerably more economical.

Given the difficulty of transporting large-scaled objects, few are to be found in local or international collections, therefore this exhibition of two sets of four large bronzes marks a particularly rare event. Small Buddhist bronze figures were easily carried on one's person as a talisman to provide self-protection during a journey or were placed upon a household altar to worship the Buddha. Unfortunately, many attachments have been lost, such as the throne, nimbus, and canopy, and the original assemblages of figures have long since been separated and dispersed among various collections. One can only imagine the magnificent and august atmosphere of the original Buddhist altars, furnished with splendid assemblies of Buddhist images, each over thirty centimeters high.

Buddha is the Sanskrit word meaning "The Awakened One." Originating in India, Buddhism spread to China in the first century. Early Buddhist bronzes preserve distinctive foreign characteristics, such as the emaciated face and deep-set features of a seated Buddha from the fifth century. During the T'ang Dynasty, an indigenous religious tradition developed while Buddhism continued to flourish; hence, these pieces manifest characteristics of the T'ang style. This exhibition features a seated Buddha with representative voluptuous features dating to the High T'ang. Despite its small size, the figure conveys strength and vigor. Along with the growing secularization of Buddhism in the Sung Dynasty (960-1279), its relation to the imperial court became increasingly distant. From this period is a large figure of Sakyamuni wearing a flowing robe with a gentle and kind expression. A fusion of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism flourished in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), at which time the Ch'an and Pure Land Schools came to rise. A Ming figure of the Amitabha Buddha on display is remarkably straight and symmetrical, the folds in the robe are precise and conceptualized.

Bodhisattvas are enlightened beings embodying compassion. While possessing the wisdom of the Buddha, the bodhisattva postpones attainment of nirvana in order to assist mortals in need. Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, seated upon a lion, often appears with Samantabhadra, the Bodhisattva of Universal Benevolence, who has an elephant as a mount. The most beloved and worshipped bodhisattva in China is Avalokitesvara (Chinese: Kuan-yin). In the Southern and Northern Dynasties (220-589), Kuan-yin is depicted carrying a lotus flower in one hand, signifying purification. Kuan-yin's other common attributes include a holy water bottle (kadika), a whisk, and a willow branch. The water bottle, an indispensable item in the tropical climate of India, symbolizes cleansing of the human heart and Kuan-yin's compassion bestowed upon all sentient beings. The whisk represents Kuan-yin's ability to disperse worries and trouble, while the willow symbolizes Kuan-yin's gentle nature. Kuan-yin of the High T'ang adopts feminine features. In the Middle and Late T'ang, Kuan-yin figures appear free and easy, sitting in a meditative pose with one leg folded and the other relaxed. The facial features of Sung Dynasty (960-1279) bodhisattva figures from the Ta-li Kingdom (Yunnan) reflect strong regional influences. Moreover, in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) a large variety of images emerged reflecting Kuan-yin's strong popular appeal. The image of Kuan-yin holding a child, widely-worshipped in supplication for children, is one example of the bodhisattva's deep penetration into the popular religious tradition.

Lokapala and Mahakala are the Guardian Deities of Buddhism. Gazing angrily, and wielding weapons, these menacing figures appear perpetually ready to engage in battle to protect the dharma. The guardian deities are often positioned at the entrances of front halls of temples, in order to protect the temple. On display are two figures of the Guardian Deities, similar to those depicted in Tibetan paintings, but richly decorative reflecting influences from Nepal, thus distinguished from the relaxed style of local Tibetan sculpture.

The stupa originated from the Indian funeral mound. In Buddhism the stupa is used to hold the reliquary remains of the Sakyamuni Buddha, and symbolizes Sakyamuni's attainment of ultimate extinction. Of the objects on display there is a T'ang stupa dating to 905 which is similar in style to the Stupa of Asoka. The four sides of the body illustrate the story of the past lives of the Buddha kyamuni, and giving (dana) on behalf of the enlightenment of all beings. The eave-type pagoda is a distinctively Chinese architecture form. On display is a Ming Dynasty stupa dating to 1631 which is in fine condition, with traces of painting remaining. Rising from the square body is a conical tower which slowly tapers to the top. The piece conveys a feeling of great height; the layers of brackets are thick and heavy without losing their subtle beauty.

The National Palace Museum has recently acquired this selecfion of thirty-one gilt-bronze Buddhist images including many fine works of art spanning the fifth to seventeenth centuries. These images reflect the richness of the Buddhist tradition and the spirit of Chinese Buddhist sculpture.

Author: Chen, Hui-hsia