Friday Fave: Vairochana, the Cosmic Buddha

Buddha draped in robes portraying the Realms of Existence; probably Henan province, China, Northern Qi dynasty, 550–77; limestone; Purchase, F1923.15
Buddha draped in robes portraying the Realms of Existence; probably Henan province, China, Northern Qi dynasty, 550–77; limestone; Purchase, F1923.15

Our Friday Fave blog series features museum insiders taking a closer look at their favorite works of art.

It’s not a piece I paid a lot of attention to at first. At first glance, the statue is almost forlorn, a robed Buddha missing head and hands. I appreciated it abstractly but never looked very closely at it.

The project that would become SmithsonianX3D changed all that. The Cosmic Buddha was chosen as one of the pieces to showcase for the launch of the 3D site, and I had the chance to learn so much more about this fascinating statue while working with Keith Wilson, curator of ancient Chinese art, and the Smithsonian digitization team. For example, the decoration on the stone robes is not just abstract imagery, but rich illustrations depicting the Buddhist “Realms of Existence” and scenes from the past lives of the Historical Buddha. The stories are told in bands stacked up the front and back of the Buddha. Wear and tear on the low relief carvings show that the Buddha was cleaned and cared for, and probably had scholars taking rubbings of the imagery.

Now, the Cosmic Buddha—as well as Promise of Paradise, the exhibition in which the sculpture is featured—are my favorite things in the Freer. I still love to wander through the gallery and study the Buddha, and try to picture what the missing head and hands were like (we don’t know, though we can make an educated guess from existing depictions of the Vairochana—the Cosmic Buddha).

Next time you’re at the Freer, look closer at the Buddha. Don’t forget that you can explore it online, too, and learn more at 3d.si.edu.

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