Buddhism in China initially flourished as a foreign religion, but is adopted as a nationwide religion over time due to strong influence of imperial patronage. This strong relationship between imperial patronage and Buddhism could be seen in Chinese Buddhist art. In this case, Buddhist art could be defined as “representational art that symbolizes various elements of Buddhist mythology or doctrine” (Foulk, 2001). As time went by, it changed mainly in terms of aesthetics despite similar intended political purpose. In this essay, I will observe the increasingly strong relationship between Chinese Buddhist art and imperial patronage as well as the resulting shift of style, through a comparison of two Chinese Buddhist sculptures. The first one is the Northern Wei Dynasty sculpture in Yungang Grotto, specifically Shakyamuni Buddha in Cave 20, and the other is a Tang Dynasty sculpture in Longmen Grotto, specifically Buddha Vairocana. This will be done through analysis of the projects’ scale, medium and presentation, and style.
The imperial patronage is evident in both sculpture’s massive scale. They are monumental and much larger than life –17.14 meters for Vairocana and, 14 meters tall for Shakyamuni Buddha in Cave 20. Both were built under state patronage, which may have contributed to the fact that a large number of manpower were involved as the state is a political institution of great power. Thus, the intended purpose might have not only been for religious worship, but political motive as well. Yungang Grotto’s Shakyamuni Buddha was built under the Northern Wei dynasty, foreign rulers which adopted Buddhism as a nationwide religion to bring together the nation (Wong, 2004). There is an uncanny resemblance in the way Buddhism element of an all-powerful deity is mirrored in the absolute power of emperors in the Northern Wei dynasty. This is reflected in the simply colossal Shakyamuni Buddha sculpture, dwarfing viewers and even other figures carved besides it. This correlation might be a sign of the imperial cult that was developing in the period. In the case of Buddha Vairocana in Longmen Grotto, this political agenda could be seen in the resemblance between Buddha’s facial form and the then-ruling Empress Wu Zetian. This was done to honor the empress who sponsored the sculpture (McNair, 1994). It has been argued that the somewhat androgynous nature of the Buddha allows this depiction, and that Wu Zetian was especially supportive of Buddhism due to its relatively less patriarchal nature as compared to Confucianism—something that would have been politically useful in shifting the society’s possible negative prejudice towards a female empress (Rothschild, 2015). Both sculptures therefore have traces of political motive resulting from state sponsorship.
Both were also similar in terms of medium and presentation. Although Shakyamuni in Yungang Grotto was carved out of soft sandstone, as opposed to Buddha Vairocana which was carved in limestone, both were large sculptures made by the excavation of caves as a part of a series of cave-temples. The latter Longmen Grotto, being larger in scale, might have been intended to ‘rival the [earlier] great Buddha of Yungang’ (Sullivan, 2008, 122). The presentation in relation to the medium is similar as well; overwhelmingly large stone-cut sculptures were displays of grandeur that shows the extent of imperial support that was present at that time. In addition, both being carved in stone could be an evidence that the sculptures were expected to last through the ages as their respective dynasties’ legacy. The later Buddha Vairocana from Longmen Grotto also had the refined quality of hard limestone as opposed to the softer yet rougher sandstone Shakyamuni Buddha in Yungang (Wong, 2004), perhaps yet another distinction that hints at the attempt at conveying superiority. Thus, using the similar medium and presentation as a base of comparison, the gigantic Vairocana Buddha might have been a display of craftsmanship to show superiority to the previous Northern Wei Dynasty.
Apologies for the late post, I hope it didn’t result in too much inconvenience!