Sunday, March 1, 2015

Dating a Statue of the Buddha

A Standing Buddha Statue

Standing Buddha.
China, Northern Qi to Sui Dynasty, 570 - 600 A.D.
Limestone, Height: 43 inches.

This statue of a Buddha is just under life sized, 43 inches in total, with both arms broken off where the hands would have projected.  The quality of the sculpture is very high, the forms are sensuous and the head is sensitively carved and beautiful.  While the form of the Buddha is standard and familiar, the dating of this piece is actually not so straightforward. I will analyze the piece and show parallels to attempt to place it in time.

The form of the Buddha with the robes having low relief folds close to the body forming a column, and the elegant restraint of the overall figure, generally date the sculpture to the late 6th Century.  However, certain elements of the face, ushnisha, and the folds of the robe are not typical of the Northern Qi, 550 - 577 A.D., but may indicate a date just after, making this a transitional style sculpture.  I will take each element separately to attempt to place it more exactly.

One dates a sculpture from the head, so we will start there.  

The cranial lump which is a mark of the Buddha’s transcendent wisdom, the ushnisha , here is defined and distinct, although subtly so. During the Northern Qi Dynasty, the ushnisha is melded into the overall form of the head to create more of a cone head, but here, it is clearly defined, even if only just so.

The long lobes of the ears are a marker of the Buddha, found in all periods of Buddhist sculpture.

The face is rounded, and distinctly Chinese looking with its full cheeks, small full mouth and small nose.  The features are highly stylized, the eyes are swooping curves, under arched brows. The chin is small, and slightly double chinned, you can barely make out the line defining it underneath it. The neck is smooth and columnar, with no fat rings, as are found more commonly after the Northern Qi. The face, with its rounded form is moving towards the fullness developed in the Tang Dynasty, but the clarity and elegance of it is still Northern Qi. 

Based on the slightly distinct but still subtle ushnisha, the fullness and Chinese appearance of the face, and smooth neck, I feel we have a late Northern Qi sculpture here, whose style anticipates the later developments in Chinese sculpture, almost a transitional piece.

Another stylistic feature that helps to place this statue in time is the treatment of the robe, which has low relief crisp folds and is close to the body.  On each upper arm below the shoulder are a pair of folds which flow down the upper arms in an S shaped, almost flame like, curving line.  Symmetrically mirroring each other, they frame the central torso.  This feature is found in two marble Buddha statues that I have found, which are dated to the Sui Dynasty, 581-618 A.D., see below.

Similarly the treatment of the bottom hems of the robes is helpful in dating. While the lower left side is broken off, enough survives of the right side to see that the robe ended in a series of scrolling curves for the ends of the vertical pleats of the robe, echoing the scrolling hem of the outer robe above.  On the left side the outer robe bottom has a central pleat whose hem forms a spade shape, flanked by curves on either side.  The under robe, whose hem is lower is broken off on that side, but it no doubt mirrored the other side, rather than followed the upper robes folds. This is partly due to the asymmetrical treatment of the folds crossing the body from left to right in curving descending arches.  

Above is an image of a Buddha statue in the Toronto, Royal Ontario Museum, dated to 577 A.D., which would be the end of the Northern Qi, to early Northern Zhou Dynasties.  You can see the folds on each upper arm which come from a vertical, before curving down, mirroring each other. The scrolling wave pattern of the lower under robe lower hem relates to ours, as well. The overall columnar form created by the robes close to the body, with the crisp shallow folds is quite similar to our statue.  However the head is quite different, they eyes in particular do not have the curving upward flame like curving form as in our sculpture. 

This colossal statue is in the British Museum, Chinese, and which has an inscription dating it to 585 A.D., early Sui Dynasty.  It is carved of marble, and stands 5.78 meters tall, nearly 19 feet high. It is a truly magnificent statue, unfortunately displayed in a stairwell at the British Museum, so you cannot get a good view of it.

The overall columnar form of the statue with its crisp low relief folds falling across the body, and the mirroring folds along the upper arms, relate to our statue.  The scrolling wave pattern of the lower hems of the upper robe and larger waves of the under, lower robe, are similar but more stylized than in our sculpture. The head of the BM statue is quite different, more hieratic and remote, than the warmer curves and expression on our statue.  This helps to put our statue within the Northern Qi style, perhaps late, or transitional, just at the end of that period. 


Anonymous said...

Tom - I love your website and blog. It's quite informative.
My question is:
When did cast iron come into use? The reason I ask is that I found a very old Buddha head / bust made of cast iron and I am trying to date it.

Bruce Leimsidor said...

Thank you very much for your discussion of the late Northern Qi/ early Sui Buddha.I have a couple of Northern Qi pieces in my collection, and your comments have been very helpful in understanding them.

With best wishes,

Bruce Leimsidor