Spotlight on the Collection

November 2012: The Ascetic Sakyamuni

The Ascetic Sakyamuni. Chinese, Yuan dynasty, about 1300. Wood, fabric, lacquer, and pigment. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. William M. Spencer III, 1979.316.

The Ascetic Sakyamuni. Chinese, Yuan dynasty, about 1300. Wood, fabric, lacquer, and pigment. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. William M. Spencer III, 1979.316.

The Ascetic Sakyamuni, Chinese

Buddhist practitioners strive for nirvana, or enlightenment, when they no longer yearn for earthly temptations or desires. For Sakyamuni, the historical Buddha and the religion’s most important teacher, this moment came after six years of extreme asceticism, or self-denial. Shortly before his enlightenment, the Buddha finally accepted a meager meal out of physical weakness due to starvation.

Artists depict Sakyamuni in different ways. Sculptures vary in size, materials, and appearance based on the artist’s own culture. Representations like the Ascetic Sakyamuni come from China’s Yuan dynasty (1279-1368). This dynasty’s Mongol rulers supported Buddhism as the state religion in order both to gain the Chinese population’s allegiance as well as to encourage the growth of the arts.

The Ascetic Sakyamuni has features of Southeast Asian peoples. Sakyamuni’s shoulders appear to sink in, provide a visual reference to his starvation. Buddhist artists from other regions of Asia often exaggerated this effect. Possibly, artists also sought to emphasize Sakyamuni’s temperance or to highlight the human suffering that consumed much of his road to nirvana.

Yuan artists emphasized the Buddha’s contemplative nature and devotion to Buddhist ideals. His enlightenment opened the door for his followers to achieve nirvana in their turn.

—Leta Woller, education – visitor engagement intern 2012-2013

Join the conversation!

How far are you willing to go for something you believe in? Sakyamuni came to the brink of starvation in his search for enlightenment. Many people claim that they would risk anything for their family and friends. Do you believe strongly enough about something to say the same? Is there a point at which you should value belief over your own life?

Take a look at these works at the BMA and beyond, and join the conversation!

Saint Bartholomew, Pietro Perugino

Charles Moore’s Photography of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham

“Columbine Students Seek Answers in Their Faith,” The New York Times, June 6, 1999

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