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Buddhism: Visual & Material Culture: Main

Last Updated: May 15, 2024 3:52 PM

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Image: Standing eight-armed Avalokiteshvara (detail); late 12th c. CE, Cambodia or Thailand. Source/creator: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. | License: CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Declaration.

Central Asia  |  East Asia  |  South Asia  |  Southeast Asia & Sri Lanka

Buddhist visual and material culture includes depictions of Gautama Buddha and other Buddhas and bodhisattvas, notable Buddhist figures both historical and mythical, narrative scenes from their lives, mandalas, and physical objects associated with Buddhist practice, such as vajras, bells, stupas and Buddhist temple architecture. Buddhist art originated in the north of the Indian subcontinent, in modern India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, with the earliest survivals dating from a few centuries after the historical life of Siddhartha Gautama from the 6th to 5th century BCE. As Buddhism spread and evolved in each new host country, Buddhist art followed in its footsteps. It developed to the north through Central Asia and into Eastern Asia to form the Northern branch of Buddhist art, and to the east as far as Southeast Asia to form the Southern branch of Buddhist art. Initially the emphasis was on devotional statues of the historical Buddha, as well as detailed scenes in relief of his life and former lives, but as the Buddhist pantheon developed, devotional images of bodhisattvas and other figures became common subjects in themselves in Northern Buddhist art, and by the late first millennium came to predominate.
On this page you can find the best resources for exploring scholarly perspectives on the visual art, architecture, and material culture of Buddhism. Each book listed below is linked to WorldCat, where you can discover library holdings for that item in your region. Resources within the gallery box are arranged from the newest to the oldest publications, left to right. The area below the gallery highlights a few recent or especially notable works selected from the gallery above.
Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Image source: Tibetan sand mandala. Source: Wikimedia Commons. | Author: Mary Mueller. | License: CC Attribution 2.0 Generic.

Buddhist iconography  |  The stupa  |  Buddhism in contemporary art

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For more than 2,000 years, sublime works of art have been created to embody essential aspects of Buddhist thought, which developed and evolved as its practice spread from India to East Asia and beyond. This book introduces this complex visual tradition to a general audience by examining sixty seminal works. Beginning with the origins of representations of the Buddha in India, and moving on to address the development of Buddhist art as the religion spread across Asia, this book conveys how Buddhist philosophy affected artistic works and practice across cultural boundaries. Reliquaries, sculptures, and paintings produced in China, the Himalayas, Japan, Korea, and South and Southeast Asia provide insight into the rich iconography of Buddhism, the technical virtuosity of their makers, and the social and political climate in which they were created. Beautiful photographs of the artworks, maps, and a glossary of the major Buddhist deities offer an engaging and informative setting in which readers — regardless of their familiarity with Buddhism — can better understand the art related to the religion’s practices and representations.

Chicarelli Illustrated Intro cover artBuddhism and Buddhist Art: An Illustrated Introduction by Charles F. Chicarelli. Silkworm Books, 2017.

Over 180 color photographs from temples, museums, historical sites, and private collections enhance this attractive survey of the Buddhist art of India, Central Asia, China, Korea, Japan, Nepal, Tibet, Sri Lanka, Burma (Myanmar), Indonesia, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam. It presents the life story and teachings of Sakyamuni Buddha, founder of Buddhism, as shown in paintings, sculptures, and other works of art, and explores the major schools of Buddhism ― Theravada, Mahayana, Vajrayana, Zen ― and the styles and characteristics of the Buddhas, bodhisattvas, deities, and other images seen in their art. Everyone interested in Buddhist art and its enduring significance will find this volume a useful reference for the study and appreciation of the various gestures, poses, and artistic elements seen in Buddhist art through the ages.

Hegewald Shadow cover artIn the Shadow of the Golden Age: Art and Identity in Asia from Gandhara to the Modern Age by Julia A.B. Hegewald. EB-Verlag Dr Brandt, 2014.

This volume examines and debates the validity and usefulness of the concept of the golden age when investigating, structuring and categorising Asian and Islamic art. The book contains contributions from fifteen international specialists in the visual arts and humanities working on material from a wide range of periods and regions throughout Asia and the Islamic world. Instead of concentrating on the so-called 'high points' and 'golden ages' of art, which have so far stood at the centre of art-historical enquiries, this publication focuses on visual expressions of confrontation with the 'other' struggle or isolation during times of change. These challenging but artistically often very fertile periods were marked by intense efforts by communities in search for new identities.


Park, Wangmo, and Cather cover artArt of Merit: Studies in Buddhist Art and Its Conservation by David Park, Kuenga Wangmo, and Sharon Cather. Archetype Publications, 2013.

Buddhist art - its nature, creation, function, conservation and contemporary manifestations - was the subject of the Buddhist Art Forum, a major conference held at The Courthalud Institute of Art in 2012 and sponsored by The Robert H.N. Ho Family Foundation. For the first time a representative group of those with a stake in Buddhist art was gathered to address these issues. The 28 papers in this resulting ground-breaking volume consider Buddhist art from the earliest Indian stupas to contemporary Himalayan thangkas, as well as its ritual use and audience, its tourist consumption in expanding economies, its often ill-conceived conservation, and its influence on modern and contemporary western art.

Berkwitz Manuscript Cultures cover artBuddhist Manuscript Cultures: Knowledge, Ritual, and Art, edited by Stephen C. Berkwitz, Juliane Schober, Claudia Brown. Routledge, 2011.

This edited volume explores how religious and cultural practices in premodern Asia were shaped by literary and artistic traditions as well as by Buddhist material culture. This study of Buddhist texts focuses on the significance of their material forms rather than their doctrinal contents, and examines how and why they were made. Collectively, the book offers cross-cultural and comparative insights into the transmission of Buddhist knowledge and the use of texts and images as ritual objects in the artistic and aesthetic traditions of Buddhist cultures. Drawing on case studies from India, Gandhara, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Mongolia, China and Nepal, the chapters included investigate the range of interests and values associated with producing and using written texts, and the roles manuscripts and images play in the transmission of Buddhist texts and in fostering devotion among Buddhist communities. Contributions are by reputed scholars in Buddhist Studies and represent diverse disciplinary approaches from religious studies, art history, anthropology, and history. This book will be of interest to scholars and students working in these fields.

Lopez Curators cover artCurators of the Buddha: Study of Buddhism Under Colonialism, edited by Donald S. Lopez. University of Chicago Press, 1995.

This work is the first critical history of the study of Buddhism in the West and the first work to bring the insights of colonial and postcolonial cultural studies to bear on this field. After an overview of the origins of Buddhist studies in the early nineteenth century, the essays focus on important "curators of the Buddha," such as Aurel Stein, D. T. Suzuki, and Carl Jung, who, as they created and maintained the discipline, played a significant role in disseminating knowledge about Buddhism in the West. The essays bring to life many of the important but unexamined social, political, and cultural conditions that have shaped the course of Buddhist studies for more than a century—and have frequently distorted the understanding of a complex set of traditions. Contributors Charles Hallisey, Gustavo Benavides, Stanley Abe, Luis Gómez, Robert Sharf, and Donald Lopez challenge some of the most enduring ideas in Buddhist studies: that Zen Buddhism is, above all, an experience; that Tibetan Buddhism is polluted, or pristine; that the Buddha image is of Greek or Roman origin; that the classical text supersedes the vernacular, as the manuscript supersedes the informant; and many others.

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Taking up a teaching appointment in Tokyo in 1931, the English poet and literary critic William Empson found himself captivated by the Buddhist sculptures of ancient Japan, and spent the years that followed in search of similar examples all over Korea, China, Cambodia, Burma, India, and Ceylon, as well as in the great museums of the West. Compiling the results of these wide-ranging travels into what he considered to be one of his most important works, Empson was heartbroken when he mislaid the sole copy of the manuscript in the wake of the Second World War. The Face of the Buddha remained one of the great lost books until its surprise rediscovery sixty years later, and is published here for the first time. The book provides an engaging record of Empson's reactions to the cultures and artworks he encountered during his travels, and presents experimental theories about Buddhist art that many authorities of today have found to be remarkably prescient. It also casts important new light on Empson's other works, highlighting in particular the affinities of his thinking with that of the religious and philosophical traditions of Asia. Edited by the global culture historian Rupert Arrowsmith, this edition comes with a comprehensive introduction that makes this work as accessible to the general reader as it is to the professional scholar, and is fully illustrated throughout with Empson's original photographs.

Kinnard Places in Motion cover artPlaces in Motion: The Fluid Identities of Temples, Images, and Pilgrims by Jacob N. Kinnard. Oxford University Press, 2014.

This book examines the complex dynamics of religiously charged places. Focusing on several important shared and contested pilgrimage places--Ground Zero and Devils Tower in the United States, Ayodhya and Bodhgaya in India, Karbala in Iraq--the poses a number of crucial questions. What and who has made these sites important, and why? How are they shared, and how and why are they contested? What is at stake in their contestation? How are the particular identities of place and space established? How are individual and collective identity intertwined with space and place?


Brinker Secrets of Sacred cover artSecrets of the Sacred: Empowering Buddhist Images in Clear, in Code, and in Cache by Helmut Brinker. University of Washington Press, 2011.

This work illuminates the role of icons and relics in Buddhist writing and practice, with particular attention to the transformation of inanimate material images into potent icons animated by the divine. The earliest canonical scriptures indicate that images of the Buddha were created before the concept of transcendental identity was developed. Later writings reveal a connectedness between image and deity, and eventually art transformed into a means of creating a receptive environment for communication with the divine power and attaining wisdom. Icons became the perceivable bodies of the divine. Brinker traces the original meaning and function of individual icons and relics across the various schools of Buddhism. He discusses their origin, style, meaning, and individual histories. Beautiful illustrations complement the histories of these important icons and relics.

Coomaraswamy Origin cover artThe Origin of the Buddha Image & Elements of Buddhist Iconography by A.K. Coomaraswamy. Fons Vitae, 2006.

Two foundational texts, enhanced by a third, "The Nature of Buddhist Art," are concerned with not only providing a language for reading the artistic and linguistic symbols for Buddhism, but also showing how these symbols are conducive to self-realization, which is the aim of all sacred art. Providing a schema of what is of the utmost value in all the world's great spiritual traditions as they pertain to transforming the understanding life and the spiritual process, clear expositions on the significance of the most profound Buddhist symbols are offered, including the poses, the Lotus (the ground of manifestation), the Bodhi Tree (the Tree of Life synonymous with all existence), and the Wheel (the operation of principles). The portrayal of the "Kingdom of Heaven Within" in Buddhist etymology, iconography, and metaphysics is explored, and this whole cosmology — which would appear to be outward — is revealed to be located within the human heart itself.

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This is the first book to examine the development of the figure of Mara, who appears across Buddhist traditions as a personification of death and desire. Portrayed as a combination of god and demon, Mara serves as a key antagonist to the Buddha, his followers, and Buddhist teaching in general. From ancient India to later Buddhist thought in East Asia to more recent representations in Western culture and media, Mara has been used to satirize Hindu divinities, taken the form of wrathful Tibetan gods, communicated psychoanalytic tropes, and appeared as a villain in episodes of 'Doctor Who'. Michael D. Nichols details and surveys the historical transformations of the Mara figure and demonstrates how different Buddhist communities at different times have used this symbol to react to changing social and historical circumstances.

McArthur Reading cover artReading Buddhist Art: An Illustrated Guide to Buddhist Signs and Symbols by Meher McArthur. Thames & Hudson, 2004.

Buddhism has a history of over 2,500 years, and its arts have existed for almost as long, weaving their way with monks and pilgrims through broad areas of Asia and across seas, intermingling with the arts and styles of indigenous cultures. Not surprisingly, the teachings and imagery of this international religion are vast and complex, and the task of deciphering Buddhist symbolism can seem as challenging as the search for enlightenment itself. All the principal symbols, objects, and figures of Buddhist worship are gathered here in a rich, informative, and easy-to-use book that will serve equally well as an art-lover's reference tool and as an introduction to the principles of the religion.


Jansen Book of Buddhas cover art The Book of Buddhas: Ritual Symbolism Used on Buddhist Statuary and Ritual Objects by Eva Rudy Jansen. New Age Books, 2004.

This work explores the symbolism of the ritual objects that are used on statues and paintings and explains the ritual meaning of the objects associated with Buddhism. Although this is not an exhaustive study, this book serves as an introduction forn Western students to Buddhism itself. Each individual symbol is clearly illustrated and accompanied by a short explanation of its significance.

Chandra Dictionary cover art Dictionary of Buddhist Iconography by Lokesh Chandra. 15 vols. Aditya Prakashan, 1999-2005.

This work details the characteristic attributes, chronology and symbolism of over twelve thousand major and minor deities. It reflects the extraordinary cultural, literary, aesthetic and spiritual achievements of several nations of Asia over two millennia. It will help to identify the masterpieces along with the profusion of masters and divine beings around them. The last few decades have seen an exuberant flourishing of the study and popularisation of the patrimony of Buddhist art for its aesthetic magnificence. This reference work will add a dimension of precision and depth of perception to the visual tradition of paintings and sculptures.

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A close analysis of the architecture of the stupa, a Buddhist symbolic form that is found throughout South, Southeast, and East Asia. The author, who trained as an architect, examines both the physical and metaphysical levels of these buildings, which derive their meaning and significance from Buddhist and Brahmanist influences. In this state of the art study, Snodgrass reads the stupa as a cultural artifact. The monument concretizes metaphysical principles and generates multivalent meanings in ways that can be articulated with literary texts and other architectural forms. This study analyses a pattern of interrelated meanings generated by the form of the stupa. It does so by reference to myth, to ritual and to doctrine, viewing the architectural form from within the conceptual framework of the tradition to which it belongs.

Transcending architecture and archaeology, the stupa is the living embodiment of Buddhist teachings. a harmonising of the physical with the spiritual. It remains one of the oldest and most persistent religious symbols still in everyday use. This beautifully illustrated, full-colour hardback explores the spread of stupa building across India and Asia, encapsulating the lasting appeal and allure of stupas to travellers, scholars and those interested in architecture and religion. This book is a lavish exploration of this religious and architectural icon of Asia and India.

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Jacob Grain of Emptiness cover art

Mary-Jane Jacob, Grain of Emptiness: Buddhism-Inspired Contemporary Art (2010)

This work features videos, installations, paintings, photographs and performance pieces by five international artists (Wolfgang Laib, Charmion von Wiegand, Sanford Biggers, Atta Kim and Theaster Gates) whose works engage in various ways with Buddhist precepts and rituals.

Baas Smile of Buddha cover art

Jacquelynn Baas, Smile of the Buddha: Eastern Philosophy and Western Art from Monet to Today (2005)

This book explores the influences of Asian world-views and particularly Buddhism on the art of Europe and America in the modern era. In essays on twenty well-known artists, Baas analyzes how the teachings of the Buddha offered alternatives to Western intellectual conceptions of art and traces the various ways this inspiration materialized in artworks. The influence of Buddhism on art from the last quarter of the nineteenth century to the present has been greater than historians and critics generally recognize, Baas claims. Considering essential questions about the relationship of art and life, this timely and beautifully illustrated book expands our perspective on how spirituality and creativity inspire and inform one another. Baas's insights and the images she presents give the reader a new understanding and appreciation of a diverse array of Western artworks.

Baas Buddha Mind cover art

Jacquelynn Baas (ed.), Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art (2004)

This book documents the growing presence of Buddhist perspectives in contemporary culture. This shift began in the nineteenth century and is now pervasive in many aspects of everyday experience. In the arts especially, the increasing importance of process over product has promoted a profound change in the relationship between artist and audience. But while artists have been among the most perceptive interpreters of Buddhism in the West, art historians and critics have been slow to develop the intellectual tools to analyze the impact of Buddhist concepts. This timely, multi-faceted volume explores the relationships between Buddhist practice and the contemporary arts in lively essays by writers from a range of disciplines and in revealing interviews with some of the most influential artists of our time. Elucidating the common ground between the creative mind, the perceiving mind, and the meditative mind, the contributors tackle essential questions about the relationship of art and life.