Return of the Buddha

This exhibition presented 35 extraordinary 6th-century Chinese Buddhist statues that were accidentally unearthed in 1996 by workers leveling a school sports field in Qingzhou, a small city in Shandong Province on China’s northeast coast. The ranking of these sculptures among the 100 most significant archaeological finds of the 20th century puts them on a par with the First Emperor’s terracotta soldiers. Their discovery has significantly advanced scholarship of Chinese Buddhist art, while at the same time their sublime beauty has renewed popular interest in Buddhist sculpture. Genuine examples, legitimate reproductions, and forgeries can all be found in today’s art market, stimulated by collectors’ search for works in the Qingzhou style.

These limestone statues of Buddhas and bodhisattvas project a radiant sense of calm and inner peace. They were apparently ritually interred during the 12th century for reasons that are still unclear. Part of an enormous cache of about 400 objects buried in a two-meter deep, 60 square meter pit on the site of the long-destroyed Longxing (Dragon Rise) Temple, these sculptures were mostly broken-some even repaired before their interment. The burial may have been a respectful way to retire obsolescent images, but could also have related to waves of Buddhist persecution.

Created during a 50-year period straddling the Northern Wei (386–534), Eastern Wei (534–550) and the Northern Qi (550–577) dynasties, the sculptures illustrate dramatic stylistic changes that occurred during that time. The unusual quantity of remaining gilding and vibrant red and green pigments on their surfaces provide a chance for the viewer to experience the impact of brightly decorated sculpture-the norm in ancient China. Many faces are gilded and some retain the remnants of painted mustaches, while the stone mandorlas—or backgrounds of the high relief sculptures—still display vibrant red pigments representing flames of light emanating from the Buddha.