Sunday, April 17, 2016

A Sui Dynasty Buddha Head

Head of a Buddha, China, late 6th Century A.D.

3/4 side view of the head above

Side view of the head above

I just acquired a large head of a Buddha, and wanted to share with my readers how I looked at it and came up the with dating through comparisons to established parallels. Pictured above, it is a life sized head at 12 1/2 inches high, carved of a dark grey limestone shot through with white veins, and retains traces of its original gold leaf and some paint, particularly the red on the lips.  It has a great archeological surface that has not been over cleaned.

While at first glance it looks like all the other Buddha heads that one sees, this has certain stylistic features that help to date it rather precisely.  Let us start with the ushnisha, the cranial lump that is a mark of the Buddha. Here the ushnisha is distinctly marked as a separate cranial node but it is a low and wide unlike the high narrow high ushnisha seen in the earlier Wei Dynasty, or the merging cone head of the immediately preceding Northern Qi Dynasty.  The hair itself is rendered as a dense series of finely carved snail shell curls covering the hair area and ushnisha evenly.

It is in the eyes that we get the clearest dating criteria however.  The eyebrows are even clear and incised arches, and the eyelids are quite protuberant and form an even elongated narrow D shape on its side. Again, the preceding Northern Qi style had very curvy shaped eyes, more reflective of the Gupta prototypes the Buddha image came from.  The nose is rather wide and flat, and the mouth has curved lips in a slight smile, but not quite the cupid bow of the Northern Qi period.  The overall proportions of the head are rather squat and heavy, strong and wide.  Overall, however the face is not so Chinese in look, as it becomes in the later Tang dynasty, it is more classical like the preceding period.

When I first saw this head, I was immediately reminded strongly of a head that I admired when I went to the Rhode Island School of Design's Museum of Art, see below.

Head of a Buddha, Rhode Island School of Design Museum
Side view of RISD Museum Buddha head

This Buddha head is also life size or just a little over life size, carved of an even dark grey limestone, with a clear but not high ushnisha, very similar to the one above, and the same long narrow D shaped eyes and wide flattish nose and slightly smiling mouth.  On this head the hair is rendered as a series of small bumps a common variation in Chinese art from the snail shell curls of the Gupta prototype.

Another piece that came to mind is a large standing Bodhisattva in the Baltimore Museum of Art, see below:

Statue of a Bodhisattva, Baltimore Museum of Art

The statue of a Bodhisattva above is actually quite large, over life sized, standing at 8 feet tall or so, and displayed on a high base so I could not get a photo at eye level of the head.  The body's proportions have the slender elegant form of early Chinese Buddhist sculptures, and the head has features that place it at the end of this period, just before the transformation that occurs in  the Tang Dynasty.

Detail of head of Bodhisattva in Baltimore

Side view of the head of Bodhisattva in Baltimore
 Another very good parallel is found closer to home though, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a standing Bodhisattva, dated to the Sui Dynasty, late 6th to early 7th Century A.D.

Standing Bodhisattva, Metropolitan Museum of Art New York
Detail of head of Met Museum Bodhisattva

view from 3/4 side of Met Museum Bodhisattva
This parallel is quite close to my new Buddha head. The nose is wide and relatively flat, the eyes are simple elongated D shapes with strong projecting upper eyelids, and clear arched eyebrows.  The proportions of the head are also quite close to my head.

Another parallel is a large spectacular standing Bodhisattva in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which I have known for many years.

Standing Bodhisattva, Museum of Fine Arts Boston
This statue, complete with its lotus base guarded by lions, stands over 8 feet tall, it is quite large.  Very hard to photograph again, at least to get a detail of the head, which is what we are focused on today.

Head of the Bodhisattva in the MFA Boston

Side view of the head of the Bodhisattva in the MFA Boston
Stylistically, the head of this large Bodhisattva in Boston shares many similarities with my new Buddha head.  The same wide proportions, flat wide nose, projecting eyelids and arched brows, and similar mouth.  This statue is dated on the label to the Sui Dynasty.

While not every piece has such readily found comparables to use as parallels, this is how one dates a piece.  With this Buddha head, we can be confident of its dating within a decade, which is remarkable given its great age.  However this was a period of great creative and political flux in China, and styles advanced and changed rapidly allowing for a fairly precise dating. 


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