Severe but serene

This mild and very beautiful head of a Buddha is of grey sandstone, come from Thailand and dates from about the middle of the 12th century. It is classified as being of the "Lopburi" style. This town was, in its time, the artistic center of the country. so many splendid statues of the Buddha have been made over the centuries in the East that the viewer is often overwhelmed and sometimes is at a loss to know which memory will remain with him. But it is hard to imagine that this lovely face will ever escape us. Though cut from stone, it seems soft, tender, almost vibrant.

The Thais are followers of the Hinayana branch of Buddhism, the more austere interpretation of the faith, less interested in an elaborate pantheon than that of the other persuasion, the Mahayana. At first the Hinayana devotees would not make images at all, considering Buddhahood beyond the confines of human representation or form. Later they relaxed these principles, and in Thailand the artists were peculiarly devoted to this very goal -- that of depicting the Buddha in a restrained though powerful manner. Their genius has been especially remarkable in sculpture, a medium in which they have achieved wonderful results.

The history of the long southeastern peninsula of Asia which goes down towards the Gulf of Thailand is one of migrant peoples moving from southern China towards the luxuriant, hot, river-laced plains far to the south, a migration that continued for centuries. The people were made up of a number of racial strains, including the Mons, the Khmers and, rather later, the Thais, who finally settled in Burma, Cambodia or Siam.

From the 6th to the 11th centuries the Dvaravati kings ruled the land in those parts adjacent to the lower reaches of the Chao Phya River. Their people were, like the Burmese, of Mon stock. In this period India under the Guptas and their sucessors was full of missionary zeal, and many priests, both Buddhistic and Brahmanical, went eastwards with their doctrines. It was the former faith which the people of Southeast Asia found most congenial, though sometimes they preferred a certain admixture of both religions, while not entirely forgetting their old animist traditions.

The Mons were particularly susceptible to Gupta influence, so that their Buddha images partook of that "classical" and perfect concept. The warlike Khmers, in the central part of the area, embraced Buddhism without feeling the need to abandon their own bellicose tendencies. Conquering great tracts of land , they imposed their own canons of taste upon their subjects. Happily we do not need to wonder what this implies -- we need only turn to Cambodia's supreme achievement, Angkor Wat.

It was at Lopburi that the Thais began to be aware of their own national identity (which was consolidated in the 13th century with the establishment of the Sukhothai kingdom), and to start to develop a distinct type of art, peculiar to themselves, tempering the influences both of the Guptas and the Khmers. The faces produced were broader and flatter, and linear detail was subdued. A greater elegance, sophistication and refinement than had been known in the past was evolved, which we now recognize as the essence of the Thai spirit.

Lopburi figures do not portray the sensuality which is so marked a trait in Indian work; their images are modest, and of a deliberate simplicity. The sculptors sought to depict a restrained, austere perfection of proportion, hinting at spiritual graces; the unknown artist of this illustration has admirably succeeded in this quest.

This head from the Rietberg Museum in Zurich is a composite of several styles , even though an essentially Thai creation and of the type now associated with the country. The round face and the shell-like curls fitting the head (deriving from the Gupta and, further back, from the Gandharan and Hellenistic) follow Dvarati tastes; the dimpled chin, pointed ears and angular headline show Khmer influence and the older traditions.

However, beyond analysis, derivation and comparison, the head itself commands our attention, silencing pedantry.The unadorned head with the low chignon, the soft lips smiling with an inner joy, the meditative air, awaken a sense of contemplation. It suggests at once the devout, sincere and selfless. The expression is gentle, sweet and loving, the cast-down eyes conveying a feeling of repose, ineffable content and serenity.

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