The Gupta Style of the Buddha & Its Influence in Asia

Standing figure of the Buddha Sakyamuni. Museum no. IS.3-2004

Standing figure of the Buddha Sakyamuni, Eastern India, probably Bihar, late 6th-early 7th century. Copper alloy. Museum no. Museum no. IS.3-2004

This sculpture of the Buddha Sakyamuni can be assigned to the late 6th or early 7th century, a period in which the Gupta Dynasty-style of northern and north eastern India was at its summit.

The Gupta period (4th to 6th century) is noted as a time during which the quintessential Buddha image was created, becoming an iconic form which was disseminated and copied throughout the Asian Buddhist world. Gupta style stands at a crossroads in art historical developments in the sub-continent.

The Gupta style embodies the earlier figurative styles of north and north west India (Mathura and Gandhara), while achieving a new power and sophistication. It is noted for the full, sensuous modelling of faces and bodies, for a subtlety of expression and for the harmonious proportions of its figures. During these centuries the workshops at Sarnath, a monastic complex built on the site of the Buddha's first sermon, became especially artistically influential. A particular type of standing Buddha image was produced here whose body is covered by a diaphanous robe, which clings to the figure while flaring at the sides. This was to become the prototype for a multitude of later images including the Radiant Buddha.

At Mathura, another important northern Indian artistic centre, other standing images were produced in which the folds of the garment were prominently shown. The Radiant Buddha therefore shows an ancestry embracing both traditions, it reveals the long flaring transparent garment of Sarnath and at the same time the prominent folds of Mathura. 

Though the Indian Gupta style is confined historically to the 4th to late 6th centuries,  the immediate north Indian legacy of the style, sometimes referred to as the Post-Gupta style, extends into the 7th and 8th centuries, the time-frame to which this sculpture belongs. The image is close in style to the large bronze standing Buddha of the 7th-8th century discovered at Sultanganj in eastern India during the mid 19th century and now housed in the Birmingham Museum. The other two surviving standing bronze Buddha images of the same date and style are held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

The Gupta style, and its related Buddha images, were to be highly influential for the many regional schools of sculpture that arose in later periods all over the Indian subcontinent. Its influence can be discerned in the sculptures of eastern and northern India from the 8th to the 12th centuries (Pala Dynasty) and felt in the Himalyan kingdoms of Nepal during the 5th to 9th centuries (Licchavi Dynasty),  Kashmir (7th to the 14th centuries) and in Tibet from the 11th onwards. But the significance of the Gupta-style Buddha reached far beyond the Indian subcontinent itself. It was carried with the teachings of the Buddha throughout Asia and laid the foundation for images produced in Tang China, (7th to 10th centuries) and in the Hindu-Buddhist states of Southeast Asia.

Head of the Buddha sandstone Mathura, Uttar Pradesh 5th century Museum no. IM.4-1927

Head of the Buddha, Gupta period, sandstone, Mathura, Uttar Pradesh, 5th century, Museum no. IM.4-1927

 
Standing Buddha bronze Sultanganj 7th - 8th century © Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

Standing Buddha, bronze, Sultanganj, 7th - 8th century, post-Gupta period. © Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

Head of the Buddha mica schist Sultanganj 7th - 8th century Museum no. IS.171-1949

Head of the Buddha, mica schist, Sultanganj, 7th - 8th century, post-Gupta period. Museum no. IS.171-1949

Seated Buddha schist Northeast India 10th/11th century Museum no. IM.239-1950

Seated Buddha, schist, Northeast India, 10th/11th century, post-Gupta period, showing the influence of the Radiant Buddha. Museum no. IM.239-1950

The Preaching Buddha copper gilt Nepal 10th - 11th century Museum no. IS.37-1988

The Preaching Buddha, copper gilt, Nepal, 10th - 11th century, post-Gupta period, showing the influence of the Radiant Buddha. Museum no. IS.37-1988

'Descent of the Buddha from Tusita Heaven' ivory Kashmir 8th century Museum no. IS.8-1978

'Descent of the Buddha from Tusita Heaven', ivory, Kashmir, 8th century, post-Gupta period, showing the influence of the Radiant Buddha. Museum no. IS.8-1978

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