Gandhara Sculptures

Gandhara Sculptures, Collection Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Museum für Asiatische Kunst, installation view, Neue Galerie, Kassel, documenta 14, photo: Mathias Völzke

Head of a fasting Buddha (second–third century CE)

There are over 5,000 kilometers between Athens and Kabul in Afghanistan, between Rome and Peshawar in Pakistan. Despite these great distances, intensive cultural contact between the East and the West took place in ancient times. Between the first and fifth centuries of our time, Gandhara art flourished in the area that is northwest Pakistan today. In their Buddhist sculptures, Mediterranean antique, at that time excitingly contemporary, melded with Indian and Iranian influences to create a harmonious whole. A Buddha between Corinthian columns, a Heracles as Buddha’s companion appeared natural in this early Buddhist pictorial world. This cosmopolitan visual language was made possible in service of an Indian religion through the expansion of the Hellenistic empires to the very heart of Central Asia (fourth century through the first century BC), through migrations of different “Hellenized” people from Central to South Asia, and finally through the rapid increase in trade of the Imperium Romanum with India (from the first century AD). Gandhara was integrated in the Silk Road network. The steady influx of people of different characters, of ideas and forms, made Gandhara an early stage for global networking.


Siddhartha Gautama ends his fasting (second–third century CE); Mara’s attack (second–third century CE); Buddha preaching from town to town (second–third century CE)

The art of Gandhara shows Buddha as an unadorned monk with bun-like knots on his head and a sweep of hair across his forehead. The elongated earlobes, which have been left behind by ear jewelry that has been removed, are signs of his renunciation of the world. Initially, Buddha attempted years-long fasting. He was emaciated to the bone. However, this extreme self-denial did not release him from unwanted passions. As a path to inner peace, the former prince developed a softer method, the “middle way:” sitting still in breathing contemplation (meditation), combined with ethical action. Before he became Buddha, the Awakened, through this method, he had to withstand the temptations of Mara (Lord over the world of the senses and passions). Mara disturbed Buddha’s meditation with restlessness. He frightened him with grimacing faces, noise, threatened him with violence, sent him sensual temptations in the form of his daughters. Through these methods, he sought to keep him from his spiritual breakthrough. Yet, as the scene of the attack by Mara shows, the meditating Buddha formed an aura of peace around himself that Mara was no longer able to disturb. Buddha attained enlightenment. Soon thereafter, the Blessed One traveled as a respected beggar monk and wandering preacher, proclaiming the “middle way.” Buddhism was born with the first conversions.

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