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The Raw Expression of a Rare, Emaciated Buddha

A number of rare sculptures illustrate how starved Buddha would have been after fasting for seven weeks. One of them is being seen publicly for the first time this week ahead of auction.

Schist Figure of Fasting Buddha, Gandhara (2nd–4th century) (all photos courtesy Auctionata)

It’s an oft-told story: for seven weeks, Buddha sat beneath the bodhi tree, meditating after having achieved enlightenment. He was, of course, also fasting — and while depictions of the seated Buddha nearly always portray him with a healthy physique, a number of rare sculptures focus on illustrating the realities that wore down his body. A gray schist figure from the ancient region of Gandhara, known as the “Emaciated Buddha,” represents one of just a few known, fully intact examples of this small, starved group. Dating from between the 2nd and 4th centuries, it is being seen publicly for the first time this week in an Auctionata sale of Gandhara and early Buddhist sculptures.

Schist Figure of Fasting Buddha, Gandhara (2nd–4th century)

With a torso that reveals his rib cage, bony shoulders, and even sinewy tendons and veins, the Emaciated Buddha is the standout of the 38 lots, which all arrive from a European’s family collection founded in the 19th century. They include a number of meditating Buddhas of a more regular weight, renderings of female deities, and a schist figure of a mustachioed, crouched Winged Atlas. Seated on a pedestal whose base features small, carved worshippers gathered around a stupa, the Emaciated Buddha is also the largest object of the collection: it measures over three feet tall. According to Dr. Arne Sildatke, Auctionata’s head of Asian art, very few sculptures of an emaciated Buddha were ever made, and such large, nearly life-sized ones are especially rare. Although his sunken state may shock, he still conveys the strength — both mental and physical — that more typical representations of the enlightened teacher embody.

“In an intercultural perspective, the depiction of the Fasting Buddha can be compared to images of the crucified Jesus Christ in order of its religious importance,” Sildatke told Hyperallergic. “Nevertheless, it is not a symbol of death and resurrection but of self-empowerment and overcoming of suffering by the human spirit. It is a manifest to Buddha’s unbelievable will and dedication and therefore an iconic image for Buddhist worshippers and followers on his path alike.”

Detail of the Schist Figure of Fasting Buddha, Gandhara (2nd–4th century)

This Buddha was likely once displayed in a prominent location, serving as an object of contemplation for worshippers. Other known emaciated Buddhas are today scattered around the world: Pakistan’s Lahore Museum has a stunning, complete figure that also features a long beard, a reflection of Buddha’s asceticism. Another incredibly bony one turned up at a Christie’s auction in 2010. Fragmented versions are found in many institutional collections, from the Peshawar Museum to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, whose example is, unfortunately, headless, but reveals strict attention to anatomical details in its remaining body. Much of the power of these works to evoke Buddha’s devotion to his legendary cause stems from the artists’ use of deeply incised lines — a characteristic of Gandharan art that resulted from a cultural dialogue between East and West.

“It was in the ancient region of Gandhara (nowadays Pakistan/Afghanistan) where the arts of the Indian subcontinent merged with Hellenistic art, brought into this region by Alexander the Great and his successors,” Sildatke told Hyperallergic. “The fascination with the human body and a close naturalistic observation of the human form can both be found in Hellenistic art and in an Indian sculptural tradition. In Gandharan art, at the crossroads of East and West, these traditions merged into a unique expressive style.” With bones and veins so thin and carefully carved they’re nearly indistinguishable from the folds of his long scarf, the seated gray schist Buddha is among the most stirring manifestations of this distinct cultural merger.

Detail of the Schist Figure of Fasting Buddha, Gandhara (2nd–4th century)
Detail of the Schist Figure of Fasting Buddha, Gandhara (2nd–4th century)
Detail of the Schist Figure of Fasting Buddha, Gandhara (2nd–4th century)
Detail of the Schist Figure of Fasting Buddha, Gandhara (2nd–4th century)

The auction “Important Gandhara and Early Buddhist Sculptures from an European Collection occurs online at Auctionata on December 16.

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