Scenes of the Buddha's Life

India, Myanmar
11th-12th century
Pyrophyllite with gilding
H. 7 3/4 in. (19.7 cm), W. 4 1/2 in. (11.4 cm); 1979.90


Artist Comments

Bill Viola

The serene figure of Buddha in meditation-a still surface conceals the inner turmoil raging below. This is the point just prior to enlightenment, a moment of supreme tension when Shakyamuni, about to become a Buddha, must gather all his strength and knowledge to defeat Mara and the powerful forces of illusion. The knowledge and discoveries resulting from this great effort literally changed the world. The figures shown surrounding the Buddha represent scenes from his life and teachings-the first seven weeks after enlightenment (the inner figures), and the Eight Great Events of his life (the outer figures) including his death and transcendence, the paranirvana, shown above.

This small sculpture is an instrument of devotion and instruction, as well as a work of art, and it comes to us from a time when Asia and Europe stood on common ground. The depiction of a sacred figure in the commanding central position, with scenes from life and deeds presented around as panels in a cinematic narrative sequence, is familiar to anyone who has seen medieval depictions of the Christian saints. By choosing stories of such stature, artists have put their talents to use in the name of something much higher than mere illustration or self-expression. That this work is physically beautiful and finely crafted is evident to the eye and does not require further elaboration or commentary. Virtuosic display of skill and technique, art for art's sake, is out of place here. Works made for God must be the best that the maker can do. Purity of mind and purpose in the artist, rather than theory or technique, are the primary criteria for success in the making of the artwork. In this context, the images that artists create are ultimately designed not for mere aesthetic pleasure or intellectual engagement, but to transform the life and being of the viewer.