Hellenistic Court Imagery in the Early Buddhist Art of Gandhara

in Ancient Civilizations from Scythia to Siberia
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The focus of the paper is on the relationship between Gandharan artistic culture and the presence of a Hellenistic court milieu during the 1st cent. before and after CE in the territories of Ancient Uḍḍīyāna. What emerges from new literary and archaeological evidences are significant interactions between artistic production and the evergetism made by the princes of Apraca and Oḍi: many evidences demonstrate the substantial involvement as donors of these local dynasties in the construction of the sacred landscape. What influence did these local dynasties have in the structuring of religious communication? How was this local power and his Hellenistic background reflected in the images and complex decorative Buddhist monuments? In order to understand the dynamics between power and religious communication in the sacred space of Early Gandharan society not only some well-known iconographic themes are now interpreted as self-representations of an aristocratic habitus, but also the presence of a ‘beholder in the image’ is detected as powerful visual strategy to stage the religious experience as a suggestive ritual performance.

Hellenistic Court Imagery in the Early Buddhist Art of Gandhara

in Ancient Civilizations from Scythia to Siberia



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Salomon 1986; 1996; 1999; 2005; 2007.


The cases are discussed in Salomon 19861996.


Salomon 2007279; see also Widemann 2009. On the Saka-Parthian period see the new documentation collected in Lohuizen-de Leeuw 1949; Rosenfield 1967 121-137; Callieri 1995; Srinivasan 2007. On Buddhism in Gandhara see Ashraf 1993; Fussman 1994; Zwalf 1996 30-35.


Errington & Cribb 1992126-131; Zwalf 1996 234-236 nos. 301 302; Boardman 1997.


Hellenism in Central Asia: Widemann 2009. Hellenism in India: Banerjee 1981; Karttunen 1997. Greek world and India: Sedlar 1980.


Hesberg 1998.


Rome and the East: Sartre 1991; Ball 2000.


Boardman 1994109-153; Bivar 2005; Rosen Stone in Cat. Bonn-Berlin-Zürich 2008 80-85. Stylistic comparison between Gandharan and Roman art: Wheeler 1949 1954; Rowland 1956 1958; Bussagli 1956-57; Ingholt 1957 23-27; Goetz 1959; Marshall 1960; Ackermann 1975 7-15; Dar 1977. This discussion is by no means confined to the last century but it goes back to the nineteenth century see Taddei (1993) 2003 II 343-59. Nineteenth-century perception of Buddhist art was recently discussed by Loeshko 2003.


Taddei (1969) 2003I 156. See also Taddei (1963) 2003 I 57-87; (1964-65) 2003 I 89-96. On social context see Filigenzi in Cat. Bonn-Berlin-Zürich 2008 298-301.


For example Widemann 2009436: “L’art bouddhiste développé dans des sanctuaires riche en décoration sculptée fortement marquée de l’influence hellénistique” and Nehru 1989; see also the deep insights of Taddei (1993) 2003 II 364: “Credo che ormai sia tempo che l’arte del Gandhara non sia più riguardata come un fenomeno di influenze ma come prodotto di un maturo Ellenismo che si trovava ad avere rapporti diretti con il Buddhismo”.


Rosenfield 1967121-137; Errington & Cribb 1992 66 Nos. 34-36.


All references listed by Salomon 2005385.


Salomon 1986269: “1a.[Seṇavarma] bows at the feet of the assembly of the noble the assembly of austerity the assembly of chastity the double community all gathered together dear friend and protector of the good (?) stūpas”. On Buddhist ritual see Sharf 2005. For the stūpa cult in Bajaur see Falk 2005.


Salomon 19881997.


Salomon & Schopen 1984118: “our inscriptions prove beyond any real doubt that the idea that ‘brahmamerit’ results from establishing relics at previously unestablished sites was not simply a ‘canonical’ doctrine but was an important element in the actual practice of Buddhism in the Kharoṣṭhī area in the early centuries of the Christian era”.


Translation by Schopen 1997126.


Schopen 1997127; on veneration of relics see Schopen 1998.


Salomon 1999178 ff.


Salomon 2007270.


Salomon 2007278.


Lüders 1911; Passi 1979226; the use of theatrical performances in Buddhism as a form of ‘propaganda’ was discussed by Lévi 189 319: “Malgré la rigueur des interdictions pronuncées le Bouddhisme à son tour pactisa avec le théâtre et chercha à en tirer parti pour la propagande” quoting (320 ff. ) some intriguing cases of Buddhist dramas; see also Konow 1920 50. For a recent historiographical problematization of the relationship between Greek and Indian theatre see Walker 2004. The emphasis on the connection ‘Dionysus-drama-Buddhist art’ given by Brancaccio & Xinru 2009 is in my opinion misleading as we have no evidence for a cult of Dionysus in ancient Gandhara a but only the presence of Dionysiac patterns used in a different functional frame. I will return in an another place on the relationship between the performative character of the rituals and that of the images but for the first approach to this aspect see below the beholder in the image.


Passi 1979234. “La scelta di una particolare lingua e di una forma non usuale alla predicazione del dharma è determinata quindi da dei fattori nuovi in particolare dalle esigenze di un certo pubblico che possiamo immaginare come non buddhista [. . .] colto versato nella tradizione vedica ed epica amante di una poesia densa e per niente immediata. Si è pertanto indotti a credere che Aśvaghoṣa si rivolgesse ad un circolo (goṣṭhī) brahmanico o brahmanizzato [. . .] quale poteva facilmente crearsi in un ambiente urbano o meglio ancora di corte (my emphasis)” (Passi 1979 234).


Taddei 1984; 1993.


Anderson 1986; 1994; Bernard 1996.


Behrendt 200713 f. No. 8 ca. 26 × 35 cm with No. 22. On Herakles’ iconography in Gandharan art see Santoro 1991.


Bernard & Jullien 198236No. 2 36 × 24 cm with previous literature.


Ingholt 1957176-178Nos. 479-488; Dar 1979; Francfort 1979; Errington & Cribb 1992 152-158; Lo Muzio in Cat. Roma 2002 77-83; Lo Muzio this volume.


Discussed first by Francfort 19795; Lo Muzio in Cat. Roma 2002 78. On Butkara see recently Faccenna 2007 165-197.


Ingholt 1957176No. 484; Errington & Cribb 1992 156 No. 156; Cat. Tokyo 2003 124 No. 121; diam. 10.7 cm.


Errington & Cribb 1992154No. 154.


Ingholt 1957176No. 479.


Errington & Cribb 1992155No. 155 as Nymph and hero with previous literature.


Errington & Cribb 1992152 f. No. 153; Cat. Tokyo 2003 124 No. 120; diam. 11.9 cm.


Errington & Cribb 1992158No. 158.


Errington & Cribb 199291-94No. 97 x-xi; Brancaccio & Xinru 2009 240.


Errington & Cribb 1992127 f. No. 130.


See above note 64; Carter 1968; 1982; 1992.


Lo Muzio 1990.


Kurita 1990185No. 532.


Todisco 2006.


For this approach see Kemp 19922008; on the visual strategies in the Gandharan art see Galli in preparation.


  • View in gallery
    Wrestler’s weight from Metropolitan Museum (New York). a. Averse side: Victorious Athlete as Herakles with lion honouring him; b. Reverse side with handles: Wrestling-match in front of spectators. From: Behrendt 2007, 14.
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    Main panel: Bodhisattva and worshippers; lateral panels: Scenes with playing erotes. Lahore, Central Museum.
  • View in gallery
    Relief from the sacred area of Chatpat: Wrestlers watched by spectators from balconies. Dir Museum.
  • View in gallery
    Gandharan toilet-trays. a-b. Apollo and Daphne (?); c. Europa carried away by Zeus – the Bull holding thunder-bolts; d. Artemis bathing watched by Actaeon and the punishment of Actaeon. From: Errington & Cribb 1992, 151, 155 (a, d); Behrendt 2007, 9 (b); Cat. Tokyo 2003, 123 (c).
  • View in gallery
    Gandharan toilet-trays. a. Phaedra and Hippolytus / Aphrodite and Anchises (?); b. Aphrodite chastises Eros with a sandal; c. Dionysus and Ariadne with Pan and servants; d. Court scene with prince and attendants. From: Errington & Cribb 1992, 154, 158 (a, d); Cat. Tokyo 2003, 123, 124 (c, b).
  • View in gallery
    Fragment of a relief from Butkara I: A man holding a toilet-tray and a woman looking in a mirror. Rome, Museo Nazionale d’Arte Orientale. From: Faccenna 1962, II, 2, pl. 168 (inv. n. 2086).
  • View in gallery
    Relief with musicians and dancers. a. Many figures represented as Nagas; b. Detail of the performance. Lahore, Central Museum.
  • View in gallery
    Relief with ‘Dionysiac’ scene: Drunken Satyr and festive celebration of grape-pressing. Tokyo, National Museum. From: Cat. Tokyo 2003, 131.
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    Gandharan silver cup: Ritual sequence of a ‘Dionysiac’ performance. Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum. From: Errington & Cribb 1992, x-xi.
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    Drawing of the entire ritual sequence on the silver cup from Fitzwilliam Museum. From: Errington & Cribb 1992, 92.
  • View in gallery
    Fragment of a vessel with scene of a performance: Actors in front of a parapetasma (stage curtain) dressed with Dionysiac attributes. New York, Metropolitan Museum. From: Behrendt 2007, 30.
  • View in gallery
    Andan Dheri, Malakand Division. Plan of the stupa area. From: Dani 1968-1969, fig. 2.
  • View in gallery
    Relief from Andan Dheri: Court performance with satyrs and elegant ladies. Dir Museum.
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    Relief from Andan Dheri (detail): Satyr offering a drinking vessel to a lady wearing a garland-like crown.
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    Relief from Andan Dheri (detail): Satyr with the animal-like ears and mask-like face and lady in ‘classical’ pose.
  • View in gallery
    Relief with satyrs and elegant ladies holding vessels and palm leaves. London, Victoria and Albert Museum.
  • View in gallery
    Relief from Victoria and Albert Museum (detail): Satyr holding a palm leaf as symbol of victory flanked by two rich ladies in classical pose.
  • View in gallery
    Relief from Victoria and Albert Museum (detail): Satyr holding a cup.
  • View in gallery
    Relief from Andan Dheri: Dance performance with male figures in Scythian-Parthian dress and female musicians. Dir Museum.
  • View in gallery
    Relief from Andan Dheri (detail): two female figures playing a long lute.
  • View in gallery
    Relief showing an elegant lady, satyrs as dancers and musicians. Toronto, Royal Ontario Museum.
  • View in gallery
    Relief from Royal Ontario Museum (detail): Satyr and an old man dressed in a long chiton, both with joined palms, performing the oklasmadance, on the right side another satyr playing cymbals.
  • View in gallery
    Relief from Royal Ontario Museum (detail): A ‘classical’ lady with drinking vessel and a satyr playing a xylophone.
  • View in gallery
    Fragment of a relief from Butkara I: Doorframe and balcony with four female figures. Swat, Saidu Sharif Museum (inv. n. MAI 422-1768).


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