fervor

Interpreting the main “schools” of Buddhist Art. Gandhara, Mathura, and Amaravati

  The rising belief in Buddhism That spread greatly through India during the first and second centuries had spurred a renewed artistic fervor to illustrate the enlightened one and relay his message. During this prolific time emerged three main “schools” in India that had developed their own particular styles and distinctions. These were the Gandhara, Mathura, and Amaravati schools. Each region had fashioned their own technique in how they would portray the Buddha in their craft. Although, even with these differences there remained a set of distinctive parameters or lakshana that could easily define the piece as a Buddha notwitstanding what country you were in. In all there were thirty-two distinguishing features that needed to be expressed to give the piece validity. These ranged from specifying the color of the individual, to arm length, hand gestures and even identifying marks on the body such as wheels or chakras which are depicted on the palms of the hands.        

  Since those early explorations into Buddhist artwork the religion had gained much attention in neighboring countries and lands far away from its original inception. These places; such as Sri Lanka, China and Korea all needed to adopt their own “iteration” of their god as did the early Buddhists of India so long ago. In response to these countries need for icons, there is an amazingly similar approach to the tenets that the original schools practiced that has seemed to transcend time and culture while preserving much of the sentiment that was ingrained by the founding artisans from India’s past.        

Sri Lanka        

Parinirvana of the Buddha, Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka

 

 In the “Parinirvana of the Buddha” (9-35) a giant rock-cut statue of the Buddha is hewn from the side of a rock face. The Buddha is lying on his side and displays many Indian “markers” or traditional motives. The Piece has a soft and dreamy appearance that has no real hard or sharp lines of definition in the body or clothing lending a hallmark of the Mathura school of technique. The Buddha’s body is soft and gentle in appearance and only offers basic defining characteristics of the Buddha identity set. These features are consistent with an earlier piece done by Mathura trained artisans (9-14). This piece is further characterized by the light and almost non- existent presence of the clothing worn on the statue. It is only gently displayed through subtle lines that give a sense of the body shape beneath the robe itself. Also important to note is the facial features which take on an almost abstract appearance and delve away from perceptual realism. The hair’s abstract circle pattern and angled large oval eyes are less based in realism but more seated in conveying the intention of the piece to the viewer, again another indicator of the Mathura style. The overall intent and meaning to this piece is to impart the intensity and centrality of the theme in Buddhism while using the scale and abstract elements to convey the artist sentiment.       

China     

seated buddha cave 20, Yungang Grotto, china

 

 In “Seated Buddha, cave 20” (10-13) which is situated along a portion of the old “Silk Road” trade route in China. There is a large rock cut relief statue of the Buddha that initially resided inside a natural cave, but weathering has eroded the exterior fully exposing the work inside. This location along an inter-cultural “highway” most likely birthed this interpretation of Buddha by way of a subtle mixing of styles; Primarily the Gandhara and Mathura approaches. The clothing is a hybrid of either style because it does not have a harsh, set patterning like some Hellenistic pieces but it does still retain some rich, repetitive detail in the folding and mannerisms of worn clothing with an added amount of abstract embellishment. The facial structure more closely resembles the Gandhara style (9-13) in its sharper definition and more “Greek” move toward facial features. The nose and eye treatment closely resembles early Mediterranean art in its execution of more sharply defining facial contours in a conceptual manner. This is further compounded by the archaic smile of the Buddha that has been seen on many Greek artworks in the past.  The overall softer body tones and shaping can obviously be attributed to the Mathura style as well as the overall presentation is not as precise or discerning in proportion as some other Gandhara works.        

Korea      

Bodhisattvva Seated in Meditation. National Museum of Korea, Seoul. photo by Han Seok-Hong

 

  In the “Bodhisattva Seated in Meditation” (10-27) we have a good example of a Korean art work patterning itself in the style of the Amaravati School. Here a slight and slender portrayal of a Bodhisattva is seated in deep (as well as joyful?) meditation. This is very similar to the third school of Buddhist Indian artwork in the depiction of these more thinly bodied and delicately appointed figures.  The treatment of the garments associated settings has a conceptual feel while simultaneously exuding a light and vibrant energy through the forms. This art feels free and expressive but not bound to scrutinous detail which it does not need to relay its concept. Overall, the piece’s lacking of “trained detail” as in past examples finds itself as a fresh approach which has an uplifting and gentle feel.   

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Giotto di Bondone’s fresco: “Lamentation”

   

"Lamentation" by Giotto do Bondone (1304-06). Image courtesy of http://www.giottodibondone.org

 

Giotto di Bondone (c. 1267-1337) was a highly skilled Italian painter who is considered to be a founding contributor to the renaissance in Europe. He was known for his masterful rendering of his subject’s faces denoting their expression and intent but also he favored to paint his subjects in more naturalistic poses which was not common for commissioned artists to indulge in. His magnum opus was his ornamentation of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua Italy of which this choice comes from.  

     Giotto certainly lived in a very turbulent time for the arts in Italy. It must have been a time of great longing for the traditionalism of past styles and the uncertainty and anticipation of the newer, then, avant-garde styles emerging from the minds of these young artists. Artists who recreated these religious themes must have felt pressure from their benefactors to produce works that respectfully displayed those sacred events in a safe and familiar way, but still yearned to make a personal statement and add dimensions that had never been fully explored to their pieces. The painting of these religious appointments was an honored task among the artisans of the day. The measure of a prominent artist in this time was reflected on his demand by the church (which often had the funding to dispense for such commissions). And in his day, few were able to take their visions in the same direction as Giotto.  

     As stated earlier, the environment Giotto lived in must have teemed with creativity in all aspects of life. It was the beginnings of a new era where the reemergence of old customs and forgotten knowledge seemed to have no end. Italy was the epicenter for the “rebirth” of humanity in the western world and with all the remembrance of civilizations past came a new inflexion of modern ideas that stood in conflict with the older ways. Society in this time was recovering from the notions of serfdom and fiefdom and was heavily exploring the limits of its new circumstances. Art was now being produced in new and creative styles, styles that suited the creator of the piece and served not merely for institutional purposes but for art’s purposes. People again had the time to devote their lives to the pursuit of such artistic creation and expression.  

     This work itself embodies all the markers for the Italian renaissance from which it was created. The fresco method is a firmly rooted in Italian religious artistry. A frescoist uses the medium of semi dried lime mortar or plaster that acts as a binder to secure the desired pigment (the pigments were only mixed only with water to dilute them) and applied directly to the binding medium. The subject (the lamentation of Christ) was a popular image at the time that conveyed the pain, anguish, and confusion in that pivotal moment in Christianity. These scenes may well have been meant to “center” and reaffirm the believer with the use of such clear and striking presentations as enabled by their technique. The interior of the chapel was completely engrossed in these Christian scenes making these images widely viewable and vividly emblazoned on the minds of the patrons of the church.  

     The images (characters, environment, etc.) are rendered in a solid color and then either highlighted or low lighted in the same base color (only making hue changes to show darker or lighter areas). This suggests that the availability of quality pigments or specific pigments must have been bountiful then. The technical use of the elongated Christ depiction was a standard practice to denote his prominence in the scene and was certainly not a Giotto innovation but a collective tradition in painting and sculpting that harked from the Egyptian method of modeling important figures in scenes. Also the folding of cloth as fabric does when worn is a possible skill learned from Classical/Hellenistic Greek art where motion, light, and action were important to capture. The sharp usage of space and line to draw attention to the center are virtues common to renaissance art as well as the sharp usage of the fore, middle, and background in the painting. For example, in one corner of the work there is a dry tree perched on an up sloped hill diagonally bisecting the painting that (in this native region) represented death and drew the eye towards the main scene. This technique would have been a universally understood visual cue for the viewers to follow. The heads of all important Christian figures were highlighted with a golden halo to name them to the viewer as the expression of their faces seem to have so much to say to the viewer. The clarity with which one can derive the emotion and reaction on any of the faces within say much for the ability of the artist and what was important culturally at this point in time for Italian society. Giotto did add his own unique perspectives to the piece with the angelic figures in the sky above the crowd. He masterfully painted them flying in varying directions with each one having their own perspective and horizon point.  

     The solemn and excited nature of this artwork that combined with the fervor in which Christianity was spreading during this time was surely able to help drive the point “home” to the common people of the time. Reading was not a normal ability at that time yet (especially for common people) and the best way to reinforce the verbal teachings which were being delivered from the pulpit was to have visual examples for believers to contemplate about. There is no doubt in my mind that all who looked on the lamentation walked away with all the intent and energy that Giotto had envisioned his work would generate.