Frieze illustrating the birth of the Buddha

Ancient province of Gandhāra
3rd-4th century
H. 19 x 46 cm or 7 ⅜ x 18 ⅛ in

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This work is an emblematic example of the Greco-Buddhist art of Gandhāra. It bears a very rich and lively historiated decoration, revealing a specific iconography.

An iconic scene in the life of the Śākyamuni Buddha: his birth

It is in the region of Gandhāra that the iconography of the Buddha in human form is gradually established. The Gandhāran school emphasizes the last existence of the historical Buddha, as well as his previous lives or jātaka. It develops a syncretic style, which is notably evident in the use of pilasters and columns surmounted by Hellenistic-style capitals with acanthus motifs, a device well known to the Greeks that allows the different moments of a narrative to be divided, as is the case here. The most important scene in this frieze is also easily identifiable: it is the birth of Śākyamuni Buddha, the historical Buddha. In keeping with classical iconography, Queen Māyā – the Buddha’s mother – is depicted in Lumbinī, grasping a branch of the śāl tree with her right hand. From her flank is born the future Buddha, gathered in a cloth stretched by Indra. On the right, Mahāprajāpatī supports her sister, and gently touches her belly, as if to soothe her.

An undeniable Hellenistic heritage, but not only

This scene of the Buddha’s birth is in itself a concentration of various influences: the clothes of the figures show Hellenistic and Roman stylistic influence, sometimes draped in broad clothes with quilted folds reminiscent of the toga or himation, sometimes the muscular bust left exposed and covered with jewels, then reminiscent of the nomadic ancestry of the Kuṣāṇ tribes (Guishuang, the Yuezhi tribe that led to the term Kuṣāṇ). The elaborate headdresses and heavy earrings, for their part, are typically Indian. The scene on the right is more enigmatic, perhaps depicting two beings who have come to celebrate the birth of the Buddha or the past and future miracles of the Blessed One. They are on either side of a table that we can believe is filled with modaka, small Indian pastries, although it is difficult to say for sure. Above, appear several Buddha worshipped by orants, each time separated by columns. This stylistic cosmopolitanism is a fortunate characteristic of Gandhāra art; the dual influence of classical Mediterranean and Indian sculpture gives this work its charm by endowing it with a strong aesthetic and a great historicity.

The art of narration in the region of Gandhāra

Finally, it is interesting to note the curved shape of this frieze: this indicates that it decorated a stūpa. The Gandhāran monasteries indeed had two types of areas: courtyards accessible to devotees and crowded with all sorts of ex-voto monuments, such as reliquary tumuli (stūpa) and chapels, and beyond that an area reserved only for monks. In the public areas, the bases of the stūpa, the door and window surrounds, the plinths and sometimes even the risers of the stairs bore numerous reliefs, juxtaposing decorative motifs and apologetic narrative scenes. This is the case with this frieze, which was read from right to left according to the traditional practice of circumambulation (consisting of turning ritually around the sacred object, keeping it on the right, here the stūpa).


Provenance: Private Japanese collection