Some of you guys may remember that I visited the Yale University Art Gallery earlier this year. While I was there, I signed up for the gallery’s free membership. As part of that excellent program, the museum sometimes sends me newsletters and other stuff. I recently received a large poster featuring this statue. it was part of a request for a donation, and it totally worked. I hung the poster in my office, so I now spend a fair amount of time looking at it. And I’ve found a lot to enjoy.
For starters, I really like the statue’s calm and serene face, which befits the Buddhist deity it depicts. The eyes are almost closed, but not quite, and the mouth has a very peaceful expression. The facial features are full and curving, especially the strongly arched eyebrows, full cheeks, and massive earlobes. The rest of the body also has curves, and you don’t see that in many other styles of art. You definitely get the sense of this being a real body that takes up real space. But while the body is naturalistic in this way, the clothing is much more stylized. I find my eyes particularly drawn to the rigid folds of his tunic and his flared sleeves, all of which seem solid enough to stand up on their own. I think that this statue’s contrasts – the soft modelling of face and body versus the severe folds and the peaceful expression versus the active posture – are what make it compelling.
According to the museum’s online entry for this work, the statue comes from tenth-century Japan and is made almost entirely of a single piece of wood. It represents a Vedic deity who became a Buddhist deity. “Vedic” refers to the Vedas, which are ancient Indian religious texts. They formed an early basis for Hinduism, which in turn influenced the development of Buddhism in India. I definitely see the Indian stylistic influence in this work. The website also says that the sculpture was originally covered in painted enamel. Color probably gave it a very different effect, just as was the case with ancient Greek sculptures that were originally painted. I am pretty sure I saw this work in person when I visited Yale earlier this year. To be honest, though, I don’t remember it making a strong impression at the time. It’s funny how things like that can change.