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Bust of the Preaching Buddha
Pakistan (Ancient Gandhara) 3rd Century
Gray schist, 28in. (71cm)
Published: Ray 1986, p.187, fig. 1

When complete, this must have been an image of impressive size. The Buddha would have been seated in the classic posture of meditation on a seat with a narrative panel in front, as may be seen in several more complete examples (Ingholt and Lyons 1957, figs. 245-51). It is particularly close in style to a bust in Karachi (ibid., fig. 250). Along with the others mentioned above, Ingholt places in his third group, which he dates to the fourth century, assuming a ca. 144 date for the Kushan emperor Kanishka. If, however, Kanishka's date is pushed back into the first century, as is done by other scholars, then the sculpture may be dated somewhat earlier. The general consensus places such sculptures in the second and third centuries.

The bust represents a Buddha, very likely Shakyamuni, preaching, symbolized by the gesture of his two hands. This is the typically Gandhara version of the gesture known as dharmachakra pravartanamudra, or turning the wheel of the Law. Specifically, the gesture signifies the first sermon of the Buddha at the deer park at Sarnath, a suburb of Varanasi (Benares), but more broadly suggests any occasion, both phenomenal and transcendental, when a Buddha preaches. The gesture is both different and more tentative here than that which became conventionalized at such sites as Mathura and Sarnath, certainly by the late fourth and early fifth centuries. In all such Gandharan images of the preaching Buddha, the artist leaves the teacher's right arm and shoulder unencumbered by the robe, which drapes the rest of the body with elegant naturalism. Consequently, one can also note the realistic delineation of the muscles of the right arm, those of the torso being rendered more subtly under the thick folds of the garment. This kind of articulation of the robe's folds is also typical in Gandhara and reflects continued influences of classical aesthetics from the Mediterranean region. The emphasis on close observation is further evident in the naturalistic and sensitive delineation of the elegant fingers of the hands.

In contrast, the head, missing most of the large, plain halo behind, reveals unambiguous idealization. Here, every feature is perfect and without any blemish, reflecting the transcendental nature of the Buddha. Apart from the flawless nose and mouth, his lotus-bud-like eyes are half closed, like a meditating yogi rather than an alert preacher. His earlobes are elongated and a dot on his forehead marks the urna (originally a tuft of hair), which are considered signs of a superhuman being. So also is the large topknot (ushnisha) on the head whose shape is secured by a narrow string with a small circular crest. The wavy hair of the Buddha is again a characteristic feature of Gandhara, as opposed to the small curls that became more fashionable for the Buddha images of all other contemporary schools. When complete, the sculpture would have been an impressive example of a Gandhara Buddha image in stone.

all text and images © The Trustees of the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore

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