Ways of Seeing

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“Ways of Seeing” First Paper Assignment: Visual Analysis Essay by Dang Mai Trang

September 2012

Buddhism is one of the oldest and major world religions with many different phases, numerous sects and layers of art. Buddhism began in India around the 6th century BCE. The oldest Buddhist religious monuments are believed to be stupas in India, which contain Buddha’s relics after his parinirvana. One of them is the Bharhut stupa from the 1st century BCE. It contains various stories carved on large columns and crossbars about the Buddha’s previous lives and Buddha’s life events. The carvings exhibit the early Buddhist art style known as aniconism, in which the Buddha is only depicted through symbols. This essay will analyze one of those carvings inscribed “Bhagavato sakamunino bodho.” Its composition shows an elaborate temple enshrining the bodhi tree of Sakyamuni1 with hybrid creatures and worshippers around; the Buddha is depicted through the bodhi tree, the triratana and the pedestal for offering. Based on how carefully and significantly the tree is depicted, how the composition of the carving revolves around it and how the content in the carving celebrates it, the tree - representing the Buddha - stands out to be the main subject in the relief. The bodhi tree - where the Buddha achieved enlightenment - appears to be the main subject of the carving by how large and detailed it is depicted. This old tree has strong and big trunk protruding upright and large and round foliage. Its leaves have a heart-like shape, a very distinct feature of the bodhi tree. The tree looks full of life with layers and layers of smooth and large leaves; their veins are meticulously carved in. The garlands that hang on the branches are also depicted very carefully and naturally. To form the knitwearlike texture, many dots are carved into lines along the garlands. In real life, the tree is bigger

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Susan Huntington, “Early Buddhist Art and the Theory of Aniconism,” Art Journal 49 (1990), 403. 1

“Ways of Seeing”

September 2012

than everything in the relief. However, despite the real-life sizes, in hierarchic scale the more important ones are depicted bigger than the less significant ones. If the tree is not important, it will not be depicted as large but instead will be, for example, even smaller than a human being. For instance, in the carving “Birth of Buddha”2, Queen Maya is depicted larger than the tree she holds on when giving birth to the Buddha. Nevertheless, in the relief, the tree positions in the middle and occupies a large space: about half of the upper section. Through how meticulously the tree is portrayed and how enormously the tree is depicted, it can be concluded that the tree is extremely significant in this relief. The bodhi tree depicted in the carving is important not only because it is a sacred tree where Buddha achieved his enlightenment but also it represents the Buddha, supported by the composition of the relief. The carving is visually divided into two parts by the railing of the shrine. In the upper section, the bodhi tree is surrounded by the open-air shrine. In the lower section, beneath the tree and the railing, the pedestal for offering is surmounted by two triratanas3. The pedestal for offering, the triratana and the bodhi tree are aniconic emblems in the relief that believed to represent the presence of the enlightened Buddha.4 Nevertheless, the composition of this carving suggests that every other emblem is here to emphasize the significance of the bodhi tree. The tree is placed on top of everything and is embraced by the natural curve of the railing. The tree trunk extends to the bottom part, cuts through the railing, stays right in the middle of the carving with the two triratanas at two sides, forms with them a triangular shape. The triad composition together with the similar shape between the tree and the triratanas suggest that the tree could be the third triratana, which represents the Buddha....
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