The image of Buddha is one of the world’s most recognized religious symbols, but its origins are shrouded in mystery. For 500 years after his death in the fifth century B.C., his followers avoided creating any image of their Blessed One. Where did the famous likeness come from, and why did it take so long to be created?

In an engaging program Rob DeCaroli, professor of art history at George Mason University delves into the history of figural art in India. He examines how likenesses and effigies held a special cultural importance, and were credited with an agency and power that often forged a powerful connection between artistic images and their viewers.

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These implications had significant benefits, but also introduced potential challenges for those who wanted to depict the Buddha. DeCaroli explores the early history of Buddhist art and the historical factors that eventually led to the acceptance and use of the Buddha’s image.

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World Art History Certificate elective: Earn 1/2 credit*

Smithsonian Connections

The Freer Gallery’s Cosmic Buddha, an etched limestone sculpture that started its life in China during the Northern Qi dynasty (550–77), is covered in narrative depictions representing moments in the life of the historical Buddha and Scenes of the Realms of Existence, a symbolic map of the Buddhist world. The Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office created a three-dimensional model, providing a stunning detailed look at its intricate surfaces.

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*Enrolled participants in the World Art History Certificate Program receive 1/2 elective credit. Not yet enrolled? Learn about the program, its benefits, and how to register here.

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