Saturday, February 28, 2009

Putting a Face On the Dharma, and on the Gospel; Who's Your Daddy?

For the first 6 or 7 centuries of Buddhism, there are no images of the Buddha. In a relief sculpture from the Great Stupa at Sanchi from 50 BC, his presence is indicated by the calm in the middle of rough water as he walks on water to convince a skeptical Brahmin in a boat.

The earliest images of the Buddha appear in the 2nd century AD, curiously about a century and a half before the first images of Christ appear. It is possible that the image of Christ and the image of Buddha may come from the same source.

The Kingdom of Gandhara in what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan straddled the main Silk Road and was located in territory once conquered by Alexander the Great and ruled by his Hellenistic successors. Gandhara in the 2nd century was part of the much larger Kushan Empire that stretched from Central Asia into northern India. Gandhara had frequent contact with traders and travellers from the Roman Empire. Gandhara was a Buddhist kingdom, but such Roman figures as Apollo, Hercules, and Bacchus frequently appear in their very Westernizing art. Roman artists are known to have worked in Gandhara. One by the name of Titus may have worked as far east as the Buddhist caves in western China on the edge of the Gobi desert. Some of the earliest images of the Buddha appear in Gandhara, and may have been derived from traditional Classical images of the god Apollo.

The Apollo Belvedere

Gandharan Buddha from about the 3rd century

The Ganharan Buddhas are young men standing in classical contrapposto poses with the weight shifted onto one leg. The monk's robes are carved with a classical naturalism that recalls Roman togas. Where Classical form falls short is when the Buddha is shown sitting in lotus position.

Gandharan relief from the 2nd century showing the Buddha resisting temptation.

Classical form just can't deal with the lotus position, and hides it under drapery.
There was another part of the Kushan Empire where this was not a problem, and where images of the Buddha appear at the same time that seem to owe nothing to Western classical form. That was the city of Mathura where this Buddha comes from.

Buddha from Mathura, 2nd century

Indian scholars have long taken offense at the idea that the creation of the first images of the Buddha depended on Western influence. They point to the images from Mathura and suggest that the influence may have been in the other direction. The evidence either way remains inconclusive.

Apollo may or may not have been the father (or at least an uncle) of the image of the Buddha, but he was definitely the father of the traditional image of Christ.

No one knows what the historical Jesus of Nazareth looked like. There are no portraits of Him, and no descriptions of Him that are reliably authentic.
The earliest image that I know of dates from around the end of the 3rd century and was found in the catacombs under St. Peter's in the Vatican.

It's not what we would expect. It doesn't look anything like any of the images we are used to seeing. It's certainly not that young Jewish carpenter and itinerant preacher. It's Apollo in his role as god of the sun in his chariot riding across the sky. But, if it's Apollo, then what are Bacchus' grape vines doing there? Those vines would make sense in a Christian context, and this mosaic is from a Christian tomb.
The early generations of Christians weren't interested in the historical Jesus of Nazareth. They were more interested in the Christ of the Second Coming who was supposed to return in glory. So the artist who made this, who may not have been Christian, borrowed the nearest available image of a glorious god in the sky, Helios or Apollo as god of the sun riding his chariot across the sky.

There are some scholars who very daringly suggest that the first images of Christ may come from portraits of the Emperor Hadrian's deified boyfriend Antinous, whose cult was popular in the eastern empire and continued to the reign of Constantine.

When I look at the very young and beardless Christ that appears on the sarcophagus of a Constantinian official named Junius Bassus, I sometimes think they may have a point.

On the other hand, the images of Antinous are all posthumous, and were themselves made to look like the god Apollo, so Apollo may remain the father of the traditional image of Christ.

So here he is, the son of Apollo, the traditional image of Christ.

And here is his brother (or cousin), the traditional image of Buddha.


Göran Koch-Swahne said...

Very interesting, as always.

makes one contemplate a little over the Image as such. Some religions are basically an-ikonic, cf. the stupra yet the image and colour remains very important for us as means of visualizing...

How, why and the like???

June Butler said...

Damn, Doug! You know too fecking much. Thanks. I'm getting an education in my dotage, which is, I suppose, a good thing.

Counterlight said...

Thanks Grandmere, but I'm a true community college professor; expert in everything and master of none of it.

June Butler said...

In other words, a teacher, which many of the masters or full professors at prestigious institutions of higher learning have ceased to be.

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Marwan Yafi said...

I am an Architect Muslim, From Lebanon.
The "Problem" you discuss is very complex & long, too many lies in this Art as Picasso said.
But will you ask yourself
' Why" Paul's Jewish group of Antioch misled nations? They did exactly to Shiite sects' tree too, misled by the Jew Abdallah Bin Saba', who call themselves "Muslims". Both are Phallic & vagina's worship, Why?
The answer is in Islam, the Qura'an's texts. I wish, you contact me to cooperate & exchange all, I am studying this issues since longtime, not finished yet. I need 3 to 4 months to finish, I have 23000 images of churches & Temples. I am comparing religions since Phoenicians... till Islam, more than 800 Mg bites of word's items.I admire your links, you search the truth, I am proving it.