Seated Bodhisattva

How Art Found the Buddha

Outside of Asia, Buddhist figures can be found in a wide range of non-religious contexts, including restaurants, garden centres, and lifestyle shops, where they can also be purchased.

Often only the head of a Buddha is represented. You can buy tissue dispensers or plant pots in the shape of a Buddha head.

Buddhist art objects are of course on display in museums and art galleries, and are also highly sought after on the private art market. 

How did Buddhist figures come to enjoy such great popularity outside Asia? How does one explain that Buddha figures now feature on shop shelves almost as a matter of course?

These are just some of the questions you can explore in this story.

Rectangular Coin

The Greeks and the Buddha

Around the mid-19th century, the great European powers shifted their attention to central Asia, hoping to expand their influence in the region.

They dispatched diplomats and spies as well as scientists and archaeologists to the borderlands between India, China, and Russia.

The explorers came across a wide range of fascinating finds. In the Gandhara region, located on the border between present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan, they found coins with ancient Greek inscriptions.

Standing Buddha Shakyamuni

They also excavated stone sculptures and reliefs featuring Buddhist motifs.

Remarkably, these images revealed distinct Greco-Roman influences. Such influences could be seen in the elaborate drape of the robes and the delicately carved facial expressions.

From this the explorers gathered not only that Gandhara had been an important centre of Buddhist art and culture, but also that the Greek general Alexander the Great (356–323 BCE) had extended his influence as far as these latitudes.

Statue of Asclepius, National Archaelogical Museum, Naples, Italy

The Antique Ideal of Beauty

In due course, Buddhist figures from Gandhara were brought back to Europe for example and offered for sale on the international art market.

The 19th century was the era of classicism, and art dealers as well as art critics highly appreciated the ideal of beauty expressed in classical Greco-Roman works of art.

Since the Gandharan sculptures seemed to reference these ideals, they were highly sought after by collectors and museums.

Head of the Buddha

Many of the Gandharan objects were found as fragments. Other pieces were removed from their original locations – for example from walls or other parts of buildings – by means of force. This explains why we often find chisel marks on the back of three-dimensional objects.

What makes these Gandharan figures so special from today’s perspective, is that they represent the earliest depictions of the Buddha Shakyamuni in human form. They date back to the 1st through the 6th century CE.

Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion

“Buddhist Art” Becomes a Household Name

In many other Asian regions, too, the Buddha and Buddhist motifs were represented in countless figures and paintings.

Statues and paintings from India, Nepal, China, Cambodia, and Tibet came onto the art market beginning in the 20th century. They are now scattered around the world in museums and private collections, but of course, all of them were originally made for religious purposes.

Head of the Buddha

This large Buddha head was offered for sale in Paris in 1920. Today it is held by the Museum Rietberg in Zurich.

For a long time, scholars believed that the head came from the cave temples at Longmen, in the vicinity of the former Chinese capital.

Dating from the 5th to the 7th century, the huge complex comprises more than 2,300 manmade caves cut into the rock and over 100,000 figures. It was explored extensively but the archaeologists found no grotto into which the Buddha head would have fitted.

Virtual reconstruction of the Buddha figure, Southern niche in the southern grotto of the Xiangtangshan cave temple, Hebei Province, China

Since 2008, we have learned more about the origin of this Buddha head. A team of researchers from the Universities of Chicago and Beijing were able to assign it to the much smaller and less well-known cave temple of Xiangtangshan – the “Mountain of the Echoing Halls”.

In these grottoes dating back to the 6th century, heads, hands and free-standing figures were systematically removed and put on the art market around 1910.

The identification of such fragments not only makes a virtual reconstruction of the original temple site possible; we also get to know more about the Buddha head and its history.

A Buddha head as a plant pot

Buddha Heads in Shopping Centres

Today, Buddha heads can be bought in department stores and shopping centres.

Does this way of treating originally religious figures show a lack of respect? There’s no straightforward answer to this question, and Buddhist men and women must work it out for themselves.

What is noteworthy is that usually only heads are reproduced. There is an explanation for this…

Alexander the Great, Bust, Hellenic, Marble, 2nd to 1st c. BCE, British Museum, London, UK

Busts as Portrait Art

Busts were a popular form of portrait art in 19th-century Europe. A bust is a sculpture of a head and neck that frequently includes the chest or the tops of the shoulders. This type of portrait focuses the eye on the facial features and expression.

In the early 20th century, severed Buddha heads began appearing on the art market in large numbers. Described by collectors as “busts from Asia with special spiritual power of expression”, they were well suited to the artistic taste of the time.

Buddha Shakyamuni

The expressiveness and artistic quality of the Buddhist heads and statue fragments were greatly admired.

It was not until decades later that art lovers addressed the problematic fact that these fragments were once part of revered religious sculptures.

The popularity of Buddha figures and heads has clearly endured to this day. They radiate serenity and tranquillity, which is why so many people like to embellish their living spaces with them.

A monk once asked Dongshan: When heat and cold set in, what can you do to escape them?

Dongshan replied: How about looking for a place that knows neither heat nor cold?

Where do I find such a place?, the monk asked.

The Master answered: There where you freeze to death in the cold and burn up in the heat.

How Art Found the Buddha