- The Washington Times - Friday, March 19, 2004

The Buddhist statues of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery’s “Return of the Buddha: The Qingzhou Discoveries” radiate an intense spirituality comparable to that of Gothic-era Christian saints in French cathedrals. Though the Chinese physiognomies differ from those of Westerners, the Buddhas (“Enlightened Ones”) and bodhisattvas (“Guides to Enlightenment”) show a comparable otherworldliness. Both these Buddhist and Christian statues were made for religious worship, but in the Sackler’s exhibit, the Buddhist images were empowered to grant salvation to worshippers. An exhibit label tells visitors that statues of Buddhas, once consecrated, could absorb the Buddha’s spiritual presence and lead humans to salvation through it.

This spiritual power pervades the impressive, unique exhibition of 35 carved limestone images, part of a sixth-century, 400-image cache of statues found in Qingzhou, Shandong province, in 1996.

The astonishing freshness of their gilt and mineral colors contrasts with Freer Gallery of Art images from the same period — dug up in nearby Hebei province — exhibited in Gallery 17; in the Freer samples, most of the paint has disintegrated.

In a surprise when a bulldozer was leveling a sports field in Qingzhou, hundreds of deliberately broken sixth-century fragments of statues were found in a sloped pit. As the 12th-century Buddhist Longxing Temple once stood above it, scholars surmise that the monks ritually buried the sculptures as too fragile or old-fashioned.

None is in original condition, and no figure appears as originally made, but all have been expertly and superbly reconstituted and restored.

The statues also provide a significant new window for viewing early Chinese sculpture in Shandong, such as those from the Northern Wei (386-534), short-lived Eastern Wei (534-550) and Northern Qi (550-577) dynasties. They were produced during 50 years of political and artistic upheaval from the late 520s to the late 570s.

This was a rich site for Buddhist sculpture, as influences traveled by water and land from India, Central Asia and other Chinese areas, according to “Return of the Buddha: The Qingzhou Discoveries,” the exhibit’s 175-page catalog.

Surprising and complex hybrid styles developed as three figures in the introductory exhibit gallery demonstrate: the Eastern Wei and Northern Qi transitional “Triad With Mandorla” that greets visitors as they enter the show, late Northern Wei “Triad With Mandorla” and Northern Qi “Standing Buddha.”

The largest sculpture found at Qingzhou is the very tall, cream-colored and oft-repaired “Triad With Mandorla,” which magnificently mixes the styles of the Wei periods and early Northern Qi dynasty. The catalog says sculptors created this transitional Buddha as a part-Wei, high-relief, motionless and Sinicized image.

They also used the swelling, three-dimensional and free-standing figure type that Northern Qi sculptors borrowed from India. The simple clothing clinging to the body is a direct adaptation of Gupta period styles, an era known as the “golden age” of Indian art.

To the left of the transitional “Triad,” the Northern Wei “Triad With Mandorla” — more typically Wei — presents the usual Wei triad of a Buddha in the middle surrounded by two bodhisattvas, one on each side. Visitors also will note that the U-draped Chinese robes conceal the three bodies more than those of the Indian-copied, Northern Qi ones. Gilt once covered the Northern Wei image.

The extraordinarily beautiful, mineral colors-painted Northern Qi “Standing Buddha” at right, clothed in a simple red, green and gilt “patchwork” robe, completes the exhibit’s introductory gallery. Typically Northern Qi in style, the free-standing Buddha’s beckoning face and soft fleshy body make him seem almost human.

These are the ABCs for enjoying the extraordinarily handsome works that ensue. In the next rooms are statues from the Wei period, dramatically spotlighted against a deep charcoal background so that some seem to float.

A pensive, sinuously curving Eastern Wei “Seated Bodhisattva” anchors the third gallery. It conveys one of Buddhism’s basic beliefs: that of bodhisattvas’ gentleness and unselfishness in postponing their own enlightenment while guiding others to salvation.

The next room effectively mixes Buddhas and bodhisattvas, especially in showing the precepts used in creating bodhisattvas. A row of three of these figures of “idealized beauty” on an elevated platform demonstrates the different proportions and sizes that could be used. The one at left has a barrel chest, the one at right a willow waist and the one in the center a softly carved double chin.

Exquisite Northern Qi figures fill the exhibition’s last gallery. Emphasis is on the body, with the drapery almost transparent. Northern Wei linear spirituality marries Northern Qi fleshier physicality as the “Standing Buddha,” the exhibit’s last image, shows.

Its face, once gilded, looks inward and gives an almost “dreamy appearance,” as the catalog points out. The starkly simple folds, raised like waves in the ocean, tumble from the figure’s left shoulder to his feet. Remnants of gilt and blue remain.

This Buddha, who embodies deep serenity and intense spirituality, is the quintessential expression of the Qingzhou sculptures. For Buddhists, he symbolizes otherworldly energies and power over mortals to rescue them from the cycle of endless rebirths of suffering.

The expression of these energies and powers shown in these images grips visitors and will keep them coming back again and again.

WHAT: “Return of the Buddha: The Qingzhou Discoveries”

WHERE: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave. SW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily through Aug. 8.

TICKETS: Free

PHONE: 202/357-2700.

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