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3D scans showed previously unreadable scenes carved into the Buddha’s robe.

Cosmic Buddha: High Tech Scan of Ancient Chinese Statue Reveals Stunning Illustrations Depicting Buddhist Teachings

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Digital 3D scans carried out on a 6th century life-size statue of a monk have revealed stunning illustrations carved into the limestone that depict stories from the Buddha’s life and teachings. The carvings are almost impossible to see with the naked eye, so the new scans will enable experts to decipher the stories that are intricately embedded in the robe.

The Buddha Vairochana (Pilushena) statue, known also as the “Cosmic Buddha” was originally recovered from Henan province in China and belongs to the Northern Qi dynasty (550 – 577 AD), an era of great artistic transformation and religious expression.

“The iconography of the narrative scenes that cover its form-fitting robe represents the life of the Historical Buddha as well as the “Realms of Existence,” a symbolic map of the Buddhist world,” explains the Freer Gallery of Art , where the Buddha is on display.

“In Buddhist texts, Vairochana is described as the generative force behind all phenomena in the universe. He is also a central figure in the Chinese schools of Tiantai and Huayan. The narrative scenes are spiritual emanations rising from the Buddha himself and illustrate fundamental Buddhist teachings. These scenes originally would have been painted, as suggested by the slight traces of pigment that remain.”

Exhibit in the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USA.

Exhibit in the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USA. ( public domain )

3D Scans Reveal Detail of Intricate Carvings

The Washington Post reports that the carvings on the Buddha are extremely worn and researchers and art historians had been trying for years to piece together the illustrations using paper rubbings. However, when this process began to wear down the surface of the sculpture, Keith Wilson, curator of ancient Chinese art at the Freer and Sackler Galleries, turned to Smithsonian’s new 3D digitization program for assistance.

When the results of the scans came through, Mr Wilson was astounded at how clear and detailed the carvings were, even revealing previously unreadable details. 

Mr Wilson told Washington Post that on the back of the sculpture, he found “one of the most complex illustrations of the Sutra, a conflation of three or four events brought together in one illustration… This is one of the earliest instances of this kind of combination. Normally it would just be one scene.”

Studying these previously unreadable scenes enabled Wilson to conclude that the Buddha may have been designed to serve as a teaching tool, probably in a monastery, where a teacher would have provided instruction on the Buddhist teachings.

Intricate details revealed. 3D scans showed previously unreadable scenes carved into the Buddha’s robe.

Intricate details revealed. 3D scans showed previously unreadable scenes carved into the Buddha’s robe. (Source: Screen capture, Freer and Sackler YouTube video )

“By looking at 3D prints, scholars can now study these scenes for their artistic merit in a manner similar to paintings. The prints might help elucidate early Chinese narrative illustration and provide vital insight into the visual culture of sixth-century China,” reports the Freer and Sackler Galleries. “Thanks to the 3D model, the Cosmic Buddha can now be examined collaboratively in ways as never before, with “copies” of the sculpture being shared with colleagues in China and elsewhere around the world.”

View a video depicting the stunning illustrations on the Cosmic Buddha, now revealed through 3D scans:

Featured image : 3D scans showed previously unreadable scenes carved into the Buddha’s robe. (Source: Screen capture, Freer and Sackler YouTube video )

By April Holloway

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