Images of the Buddha

What are the types of Buddhist images? Some of the early ones are called aniconic images. They represent the Buddha through symbols, places associated with his life or simply by his absence. We often see images of people bowing down in devotion to the Bodhi Tree and to the empty Throne of the Buddha’s awakening. These images are quite common early in the Buddhist tradition. These are found in many great American Museums and the British Museum.

Footprint of the Buddha with the inscription of the Eight-Spoked Wheel

You can see similar images on one of the most important early Buddhist monuments: The Great Stupa at Sanchi. In these cases, the Buddha would be represented by a symbol or by a place that the Buddha once occupied but now is absent.

The Meaning of the Early Images

There is a debate about the meaning of these aniconic images. Some scholars say that these images are evidence of the tradition that prohibited representation of the Buddha in physical form. Others say that they don’t represent the Buddha but represent Shrines associated with the Buddha after his death. I’m somewhat sympathetic to the second argument because I think many Buddhist Shrines do function as reminders of the Buddha’s absence.

The interpretation of these images is uncertain, but they constitute for us an important category of early representation of the Buddha.

The Mathura Style

Near the beginning of the common era, craftsmen began to create images of the Buddha’s physical form. These images appeared in a number of distinctive sculptural styles.

One of the first is the so called Mathura style, associated with the region of Mathura in the Ganges basin. Buddha images in the Mathura style often have a large and fleshy body, typical of an indigenous Indian way of expressing the form of the human body.

Buddha in the Mathura Style

The Gandhara Style

Another style that you’ll see quite commonly is the style associated with the region of Gandhara, a region on the boundary between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Here, the Buddha images show the influence of Greek craftsmanship. Alexander The Great, who invaded the Persian Empire and managed to travel all the way to the plains of Northern India, left behind in Afghanistan a series of Hellenistic kingdoms that had Greek craftsmen. These were enlisted to provide images of the Buddha.

These images show Greek influence in the muscular and anatomical quality of the image itself. You are much more aware in a Gandhara image of the gracefulness and strength of the Buddha as a physical being. You can see a lot of Gandhara images representing different stages in the Buddha’s life. You’ll often see images of the Buddha’s victory over Mara.

Buddha in the Gandhara Style

The Gupta or Classical Style

The Mathura and Gandhara came together to create what became eventually the classical style of Buddhist art. This style developed during the Gupta period in Indian history. In this style, the Buddha images are more fluid, graceful, and in a sense, more abstract. The Buddha’s body is more slender. The expression on his face often is more delicate and refined.

Buddha in the Gupta Style

This article is part of the series about Buddhist Art.

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