Religious sculpture held a much more prominent role in Western culture before the twentieth century. Indeed, many of the masterworks of the Renaissance age and beyond focus on religious topics, as those were the chosen subjects that the patrons who could finance the work of sculptors wanted to see rendered. In the modern era, though, there are many patrons who want to see sculpture of a more secular nature, and in the post-representational age, there are many who view the meaning of two- and three-dimensional art to be as diverse as the number of viewers who are available to view the pieces in the first place. Whereas the defining piece of one era might have been Michelangelo’s David, in modern times, the closest that we come to a defining religious ethos in sculpture might be in the work of Mapplethorpe. While that might seem dismissive to religion, it is also liberating, in the sense that the controlling hand of the patrons of the art world no longer hold sway over the currents of meaning. Sculptors now have the freedom to compose whichever pieces and whichever subjects they choose, as long as they can find the means and the time. This is similar to the atmosphere in which ancient Indian sculptors were able to work, starting back in the days of the earliest remnants of the Indus Valley civilization (3300 – 1700 BC), as represented at such sites as Mohenjo-daro and Harappa, which are now in Pakistan. The artistic climate appears to have been similar in several important ways.
The most famous early figure in Indian sculpture is the bronze Vishnu sculpture. This small piece features a dancer holding some of the traditional religious artifacts of the day. During that time, though, pottery and stone were used much more frequently than bronze, because of the time it took to prepare the material for use. Once the Indus Valley civilization collapsed, there is a group of copper figures that may have come from Daimabad and have been dated, with some disagreement, around 1500 BC. However, Indian monumental sculpture did not take full shape until the reign of Asoka, which began in 270 BC. The earliest sculptures from the Buddhist era feature primarily lions, although other animals were featured as well. There were a number of reliefs made as well, and most of those survive at Sanchi. These reliefs appear to have developed from a tradition of using wood that also involved Hindu influences.
Indian sculpture became its most explicitly religious between the second and first century BC, in the northern section of India. The art of Gandhara has been termed Greco-Buddhist because of its integration of elements from both styles. These pieces render episodes from the life and teachings of the Buddha. This was the first time period when the Buddha was represented as a human; before this, the Buddha had only been represented symbolically. This likely has to do with the Persian and Greek influences on the Gandharan style. Not only did the human form become a focus of Indian sculpture for the first time, but pieces also show such other Mediterranean touches as wavy hair, footwear, drapery on both shoulders, and acanthus leaf augmentations.
As the sculpture movement moved into the first and second centuries CE, Mathura emerged as a center of Indian sculpture, rendered in pink sandstone. This continued the earlier blending of Indian and Greek motifs and served as the basis for the Indian religious sculpture to follow. The Gupta Empire (320-550 AD) has long been viewed as the “classical” era of Indian sculpture, and during this time the Gandharan style spread throughout the era. As time went by, the subject matter of sculpture in India became almost wholly religious – and conservative at that. While earlier works in this era showed some flair and willingness to experiment, a trend developed toward rendering deities only in simple standing poses, shown from the front. The yakshi and apsara still have poses that curve sensuously, as is appropriate for attendant spirits, but the more important deities took more conservative postures. The carving showed detailing that was intricate and detailed, as primary figures were featured with a backing that had considerable relief. The Chola dynasty (850 – 1250 AD) in south India produced a celebrated series of bronze sculptures, such as Shiva as Nataraja. The work that emerged during this time period represents the climax of the Indian sculptural tradition.
The primary reason for the syncretism between Greek and Buddhist art was the conquests of Alexander the Great during the fourth century BC, followed by the Islamic conquests during the seventh century AD. The Greek insistence on realism in art showed up in the earliest representations of Buddha as a human form. This realism also helped set the boundaries for Buddhist art all over the Asian continent, from that time up to the present day. Dating is not always certain, but there was certainly a strong Hellenistic influence throughout the East as late as the sixth century AD. The use of foliage for decoration, the Corinthian capital, flying cupids, and the standing figure with one leg flexed in a relaxed pose, are all Hellenistic trademarks that also became key motifs in Buddhist art throughout Asia.
In the West, religious sculpture is still awaiting the call to orthodoxy and conservatism that marked the transitions in Indian sculpture. The loose tradition of the sculptors at the beginning of the growth of Indian sculpture is still at work in Western sculpture today. During the earlier periods, the sculptors in India rendered the subjects that were most important to them. Their minor and major deities, as well as animals, populated their early shrines. While the sculptures during this period are not as artistically mature as those in the later dynasties, they show more variety and, ultimately, more freedom. That is still the case of sculpture in the modern era in the West today.
The process that ultimately led to the calcification of sculpture in India did affect Western sculptors from the Renaissance until the middle of the eighteenth century. Because patrons wanted religious subject matter for their paintings and sculptures, those were the subjects that artists of the day used. Once the religious stranglehold on subject matter was eased, and the modern era of art was born, representation became less important, and meaning became more fluid. As a result, artists had more freedom to represent what they wanted. As long as there is freedom in terms of means, this openness of representation should flourish.
DeCaroli, Robert. “From the Living Rock,” in What’s the Use of Art? Jan Mrazek and Morgan Pitelka, eds. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2008, pp. 22-45.
Harrison, Charles. An Introduction to Art. New York: Yale University Press, 2008.