The Cosmic Buddha’s New Dimensions

The Cosmic Buddha, centerpiece of the forthcoming exhibition Body of Devotion, has transcended time and space. The limestone sculpture started its life in China during the Northern Qi dynasty (550–77), most likely carved by a team of craftsmen. From that point forward, little is known about the Cosmic Buddha’s history until it appeared on the art market in Beijing more than a millennium later, in 1923. Freer Gallery curator Carl Whiting Bishop spotted the sculpture and bought it for the museum.

Covering the sculpture, which is formally titled Buddha Vairochana with the Realms of Existence, are detailed narrative scenes representing moments in the life of the Historical Buddha. Scenes of the Realms of Existence, a symbolic map of the Buddhist world, also are etched into the sculpture’s robe. Together, the sculpture’s many images provide a rare glimpse into early Chinese symbolic visions of the Buddhist cosmos.

In earlier times, the only way to capture the Cosmic Buddha’s rich content was through photographs or rubbings, impressions in black ink on white paper made directly on the sculpture’s surface. Today, anyone with a computer can zoom in on its intricate details. With help from the Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office, the Cosmic Buddha now exists as a three-dimensional model, enabling scholars to study the work as never before and providing worldwide access to this masterpiece of Buddhist sculpture.

The Cosmic Buddha’s next journey is from the Freer to the Sackler, where it will appear in Body of Devotion: The Cosmic Buddha in 3D when it opens this Saturday. The interactive installation explores not only the work itself, but also the evolving means and methods of studying sculpture, from rubbings and photographs to the technological possibilities of today.

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