The McClung Museum plays a big role in the UT experience for many members of our campus community. To highlight these connections, we asked UT faculty and staff to tell us about an object in our collection that has impacted their classes, their students, or their own exploration within the museum.
Suzanne Wright, Associate Professor of Art History in the School of Art, has selected a beautiful object that is on display in the exhibition, The Decorative Experience. “I’d choose the Buddhist stela, as one of the most aesthetically and historically significant works of Asian art owned by the McClung,” she states.
The stela originated in China. Although Buddhism reached China during the Han Dynasty, it is not until the Northern Wei Dynasty that the first distinctively Chinese style of Buddhist art appears. In this carving, the three figures, which are the Buddha and two bodhisattvas (heavenly beings resolved to save all beings), wear Northern Wei court robes. Their bodies and faces are thinner and more elongated than those of earlier Buddhist figures. Dragons also appear on either side of the Buddha and lotus stems flow gracefully from the dragons’ mouths, culminating in the flowers upon which the bodhisattvas stand.
In this stela, the central Buddha is Sakyamuni, the historical founder of Buddhism. According to the Mahayana schools of Buddhism, which are prevalent in China, Sakyamuni is only the most recent Buddha in an infinite line of Buddhas. Sakyamuni is flanked by the bodhisattvas Manjusri, on his left, and Samantabhadra, on his right. Manjusri is the bodhisattva of Transcendent Wisdom and holds a vase containing an elixir of immortality. Samantabhadra is the bodhisattva of Universal Benevolence. The Buddha’s hands are carved in meaningful gestures called mudras. The right hand is a gesture of reassurance (abhaya) and the left is in the mudra of blessing or giving (varada).
Wright explains why this stela is so impactful. “I frequently assign papers in one of my classes on Chinese art that require students to write on one or more objects in the McClung collection. This is a student favorite, probably because of its size and the intricacy of its carving. Teaching from digital images, one often misses a sense of scale, texture, and three-dimensionality. Seeing this in person, students can understand more about how a Buddhist devotee would have physically related to the work as a whole and the image of the Buddha in particular. They can also see evidence of the history of the piece: the carving methods, traces of the pigments that remain on the surface, damage that it has suffered over the centuries. All of this draws students in and makes for some very interesting papers!”