Amitabha with Avalokitesvara and Mahasthamaprapta
Gandhara, Kushan Period
Private Collection, Belgium

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This relief sculpture of the Buddha Amitabha flanked by bodhisattvas is carved in grey schist, the most common type of stone used for sculpture in the Gandharan region. Schist is a fine-grained soft stone that is relatively easy to carve but allows for hard, sharp edeges and fine detail. The quality of the stone, the relative difficulty or ease of working the stone, the degree to which it allows for precise detailing, takes a polish, or other such factors, must be taken into consideration by the artist as these factors ultimately form part of the overall style of the work.

The central figure of the relief is Amitabha Buddha seated on an open lotus, symbolic of the attainment of enlightenment. He is seated beneath a gem-encrusted tree which is inherently suggestive of the bodhi or pipal tree at Bodh Gaya under which Shakyamuni Buddha attained enlightenment. Amitabha makes a gesture of teaching with his two hands.

Hierarchic scaling is used very effectively here to suggest three tiers of spiritual attainment. At the highest level is the Buddha Amitabha himself, the exemplar of spiritual perfection who is shown twice the size of the two flanking bodhisattvas. The bodhisattvas, in turn, represent a middle tier of spiritual attainment. Though they are perfected beings they have not yet fully realized their enlightenment, and are thus represented smaller in scale than the central Buddha. The princely figures who appear behind the Buddha and bodhisattvas are Indra and Brahma, Brahmanic deities who signify a still lower level of spiritual attainment; thus, they are shown nearly half the size of the two bodhisattva figures.

The Hellenistic interest in naturalism visible in this work is one of the hallmarks of the Gandharan sculptural style. The naturalistic features of the work include the heavy, three-dimensional treatment of the drapery worn by each figure, with folds that are not regularized but seem to fall in realistic patterns of random shape and thickness. The physical form of the Buddha and his bodhisattvas are well-defined, solid and muscular, with swelling chests, arms, and abdomens. There is a palpable sense of fullness and warmth to the flesh that is accentuated by contrast with the drapery and the crisply detailed jewelry. The tree above his head and the open lotus upon which he sits are treated in an equally naturalistic fashion.

Alongside this naturalism, however, is a certain idealism in the treatment of the Buddha's facial features. This is consistent with texts in which Buddhas and bodhisattvas are described as infinitely more beautiful than ordinary human beings. This notion was taken literally in Gandhara and as a result, Buddhas are sometimes given a mask-like appearance of perfection whereas ordinary beings were frequently depicted with a sometimes intense realism. The comparison to the left makes this clear.

This relief carving, and others like it with prominent frontal figures and clearly defined iconography, may have served as independent cult images if placed in an appropriate location. Such locations might include a niche or chapel, a platform, or against the wall of a sacred building. The original context of this work is not known, nor is it known precisely where or in what condition the work was found. However, the significant yellowing on the surface of the piece is caused by calcite deposits from prolonged exposure to soil; therefore, we can surmise that the piece was buried for some time and recovered through excavation.

(1) Lolita Nehru, Origins of the Gandharan Style, p. 63.