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Gallery Text

Although its popularity would not take hold in China until several centuries after its introduction during the Eastern Han period (25–220 CE), the religious teachings of Buddhism began in South Asia around the 5th century BCE, and by the 3rd century BCE, figural images with distinctive regional styles arose. Two grew to particular prominence, later serving as major inspirations for artisans in Central Asia and China. In the northwestern region of ancient Gandhara (parts of present-day India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan), artisans working in brightly polychromed gray schist or white stucco took their cues from Greek sculpture, creating figures with Classical facial features, thick curly locks, and heavy drapery. Gandhara was ruled by a series South Asian Buddhist Sculpture of Indo-Greek kings from the fourth century BCE onward and long served as an important artistic gateway between India and the West. Meanwhile, near the northcentral Indian city of Mathura, artisans drew inspiration from indigenous Indian sculptural styles, celebrating the corporeality of the body, which they draped in diaphanous robes that revealed its structure. Mathuran images were typically sculpted in mottled red sandstone quarried in nearby Sikri, and like their Gandharan counterparts, they were naturalistically painted. Visual elements drawn from both of these styles are visible in the early Chinese Buddhist sculptures on display in the next gallery.

With small mouth, slender nose, crisp, planar intersection of forehead and eyes, and wavy locks of hair, this idealized image of a Buddha bears all the Classical features of Greek-inspired Gandharan sculptures. The figure’s ushnisha, or cranial protuberance, which here resembles a topknot of hair, is the most important iconographic attribute of a Buddha and represents a physical manifestation of the Buddha’s expanded wisdom gained at the time of his enlightenment.

Identification and Creation
Object Number
Head of a Buddha, Gandharan style
Work Type
sculpture, head
2nd century
Creation Place: South Asia, Pakistan, Gandhara
Kushan period, c.100 BCE-250 CE
Level 1, Room 1740, Early Chinese Art, Arts of Ancient China from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age
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Physical Descriptions
Dark gray schist
H. 40.3 x W. 20.2 x D. 22 cm (15 7/8 x 7 15/16 x 8 11/16 in.)
Lois Orswell, Pomfret Center, CT (by 1998), gift; to Harvard University Art Museums, 1998.
Acquisition and Rights
Credit Line
Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, The Lois Orswell Collection, by gift
Accession Year
Object Number
Asian and Mediterranean Art
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Publication History

Marjorie B. Cohn and Sarah Kianovsky, Lois Orswell, David Smith, and Modern Art, exh. cat., Harvard University Art Museums (Cambridge, MA, 2002), cat. no. 331, fig. 74, pp. 162-163, 365

Exhibition History

Lois Orswell, David Smith, and Modern Art, Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, 09/21/2002 - 02/16/2003

32Q: 1740 Early China I, Harvard Art Museums, 11/01/2014 - 01/01/9999

Subjects and Contexts

Collection Highlights

Google Art Project

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