Gift of the Bridge family
Asia OA 1872,7-1.1
Sculpture of the Buddha
Burma, probably from the region of the Irrawaddy Delta, 18th century AD or earlier
This figure of the Buddha shows him in a popular Burmese form, seated cross-legged on the backs of three elephants. The sculpture is made of wood that has been lacquered and gilded. He is depicted with his hands in the bhumisparsamudra position - his right hand touches the earth, calling on the Earth Goddess to witness the fact that he is able to achieve Enlightenment. This is the moment of triumph in the Buddha story, which explains its frequent use in Buddhist cultures, especially in Burma and Thailand.
The figure appears in James Stephanoff's painting An Assemblage of Works of Art, from the Earliest Period to the Time of Phydias. This is a nineteenth-century European view of the hierarchy of art, 'progressing' from South and Southeast Asian sculpture and that of the ancient Mayas at the bottom to the 'perfection' of classical Greek art at the top. Stephanoff placed the Buddha in his lowest, most primitive zone, next to reliefs of ancient Mayan civilizations that were being discovered in Central America. This reflected the belief at that time that the Mayan civilization had developed after contact between Central America and one of the ancient 'oriental' civilizations - China, India or Egypt. The historian Johann Winckelmann (1717-68) and others regarded Asian and Egyptian cultures as 'the cradle of civilization'. But they also believed that the art of these cultures was 'symbolic and primitive' in its representation of the human figure in comparison with what they saw as the sophisticated ideal reached by Greek artists.
M. Caygill and J. Cherry (eds), A.W. Franks, nineteenth-centur (London, The British Museum Press, 1997)