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A monumental gray schist head of Buddha, Ancient region of Gandhara, Kushan period, 2nd-3rd century

Lot | Sotheby's

Lot | Sotheby's

A monumental gray schist head of Buddha, Ancient region of Gandhara, Kushan period, 2nd-3rd century.  Photo Sotheby’s

the elegantly carved head in highly polished gray schist with stylized curls drawn up over the ushnisha at crown of head, with a distinctive widow’s peak above the broad forehead and urna, finely chiselled eyebrows curving into the strong aquiline nose, the lowered eyes serene and downcast, with a bow-shaped mouth and pendulous earlobes signifying Buddha’s renunciation, with traces of original stucco overall. Height 15 1/2  in., 39.5 cm. Estimation 100,000150,000 USD

Provenance: Jano Pir Collection, Belgium, 1975-1980.
Private Dutch Collection, acquired in 1987.

This exquisitely carved head of Buddha is a superb example of the Gandharan style of monumental sculpture that flourished in the northwestern part of the Indian subcontinent from the 1st–5th centuries AD. Traces of stucco, which would have been layered on top of the schist and painted with polychrome, still remain adhered.

Buddha images such as this provided the template for the exportation of Buddhist imagery across South and Southeast Asia, and throughout the Buddhist diaspora. The strong hairline, waveform hairstyle and high placement of the ushnisha in the present work suggests an origination in an atelier in Sahri Bahlol. Compare the monumental size, powerful facial modeling and elaborate and stylized hairstyle to a similar head of Buddha from Sahri Bahlol in the Peshawar Museum, see Harold Ingholt, Gandharan Art in Pakistan, New York, 1957, p. 130, cat. no. 271.  

The development of Gandharan sculpture mirrored the development and rise of Mahayana Buddhism, a distinct philosophical and artistic departure from the aniconism of early Buddhism. Whereas the presence and teachings of the Buddha had historically been demarcated through symbolism–a wheel representing the dharma or teachings of Buddhism; an empty throne; a set of footprints; a stupa or reliquary mound–the emergence of Mahayana cult statuary found expression through the idealization of bodhisattvas. It is likely that the shift from the aniconic phase of early Buddhism into the multiplicity of imagery of the Mahayana was partially negotiated by the prevalence of Graeco-Roman imagery and icon worship found along the Silk Road.

Spanning the distance across the Khyber from modern day Afghanistan in the east and Pakistan in the north, the Gandharan cultural region served as the central passageway between Persia, Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent. The ancient kingdom of Gandhara was a center of significant military and commercial importance, which absorbed and reflected the dynamic multicultural, artistic and religious influence of its numerous conquerors and inhabitants. Situated between the Indus and Kabul Rivers in the fertile Peshawar valley, this region was also for many centuries a main corridor of migration from within and without.

By the 1st and 2nd century BC, after the capture of the Gandharan region by the Greek and Persian armies of Alexander and the decline of the Mauryan Empire of Chandragupta and his heirs, an era of Graeco-Bactrian rule began, thus giving rise to this unique synthesis of Hellenistic and Indic artistic traditions.

Buddhism flourished in the Gandharan region from the 1st century BC, reaching its apogee under the mighty Kushan emperors. The Kushan period, during which the present work was created, is considered a golden age of Gandharan Buddhist art, during which the construction of stupas or reliquary mounds, temples, monasteries and sculpture dominated the Gandharan cultural sphere. 

Sotheby’s. Images of Enlightenment: Devotional Works of Art and Paintings, New York | 17 sept. 2014, 10:00 AM