Inside an Ancient Statue, a Tantalizing Discovery

How a 3D digital scan has thrown a Buddha sculpture's carvings into very sharp relief

For nearly nine decades, the Cosmic Buddha statue stood alone at the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art.

Museum-goers would pass by the headless, handless statue, a relic of sixth-century China, without a second glance. Few came close enough to even notice the intricate scenes covering the entire stone surface whose paint had worn off.

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When exhibit curator Keith Wilson first arrived at the museum 10 years ago, he understood why the statue didn’t catch everyone’s eye.

What makes this sixth-century Chinese object, the Cosmic Buddha, exceptional are the detailed narrative scenes that cover its surface, representing moments in the life of the Historical Buddha as well as the Realms of Existence, a symbolic map of the Buddhist world (image courtesy: Smithsonian’s Digitalization Program Office).

“It is a difficult sculpture to love because it’s so complicated,” he said. “It’s not sensuous. It’s not a beautiful, white marble surface.”

Yet, as an expert in ancient Chinese objects, he understood the major religious and historic implications of those scenes carved on the form-fitting robe depicting Buddhism’s six realms of existence, from the heavenly realm of the devas at the top to the hot and cold hells of the dead at the bottom.

Tired of seeing the statue’s significance ignored, he chose to have it scanned in 3D for the Smithsonian’s digitization project, a process that began in 2011. Now, it is accessible online as an interactive 3D model showcasing in brilliant clarity images of humans and animals in detailed landscapes across the length of the Buddha’s body.

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And because it’s online, this object of devotion is now available outside the confines of the museum gallery.

“You can’t take a field trip to Washington, but you can use these 3D models remotely,” said David Morgan, professor of religious studies at Duke University. “They give a sense of the object, a sense of its scale, a far better sense of its complexity as an object and as a surface. It’s really quite amazing.”

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The Cosmic Buddha stands in the lower level of the adjacent Arthur M. Sackler Gallery as the center of an exhibit titled “Body of Devotion: The Cosmic Buddha in 3D,” which closes July 9.

Interactive screens, informational posters and two touch-screen computers tell how technology was able to capture the intricate carvings without damaging the statue, as previous methods such as ink rubbings had done. (go to page 2 to continue reading)[lz_pagination]

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