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A Journey of Initiation through the Golden Age of Ancient India: Gupta Art I THURSDAY 17 DECEMBER 2015AT 10:00 AM

PIASA’s sale of Asian Art on 17 December 2015 will include a very rare 5th century Head of Buddha in pink sandstone from the Gupta period – the golden age of Ancient India.

‘Virtue as the path to beauty’ is how V.S Agrawala evoked Gupta Art in his specialist book on the subject, published in 1949. This art was the fruit of Jainist, Buddhist and Hindu influences, and flourished between the 4th–6th centuries A.D. in northern India (in the latterday states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh). 

Despite its thirst for conquest, the Gupta Empire offered a prosperous and favourable climate for the development of literature, science and art, which enjoyed a golden age scaling heights of complexity and refinement. Religious architecture developed and, with it, sculpture to adorn the empire’s temples, palaces and stupas. These buildings were often in wood and brick, and have suffered from the ravages of time, but their stone sculptures have survived to bear witness to a brilliant lost civilization.

Three religions co-existed in the Gupta Empire, including Buddhism. Portrayals of Buddha conformed both to the iconographical cannons of Buddhist art, like ushnisha (the oval protuberance at the top of the head) and elongated ear-lobes, and to the emerging artistic traditions of Gupta art, inspired by the perfection of Nature: eyebrows similar to chinaberry blossom, eyelids in the form of lotus petals, a nose like a sesame flower and bimba-fruit lips. 

Gupta sculptors broke with previous representations of Buddha, shown with his eyes open on the world, to show him instead with eyes half-closed. They sought to translate spiritual perfection into aesthetic terms, and showed the sage after the Awakening, deep in meditation with his gaze turned in on himself. In the words of S. Kramrich, ‘the form translates exactly the meaning of the name.’ Sculpted faces of Buddha from the Gupta age constitute one of the most accomplished and elevated expressions not just of Buddhist art but of Buddhist spirituality itself: noble and serene, as reflected in this remarkable head, with its tightly curled hair, which has already prompted keen interest from international collectors and connoisseurs.

Alice Jossaume Expert