If you need interesting expository essay topics for your next writing assignment on the history of art, there are many ideas from which to choose. That being said, if you need some help getting started, consider the following 20:
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Art has a long history of serving as a record keeper for historical events and this is also true of Buddhism. There are three foundations or Jewels of Buddhism. The first is the Buddha, and the second is Dharma which is the teachings. The third is the Sangha — the community. Buddhists are generally distinguished from non-Buddhists through taking refuge in the third Jewel. Other facets of the practice include supporting the monastic community, becoming a monk, developing a mindfulness in meditation, practicing meditation, cultivating higher discernment and wisdom, studying the scriptures, practicing devotion, and practicing traditional ceremonies (Kohn 143). In early South Asian artwork, the four great miracles of the Buddha’s life are described along with his life cycle. It is encompassed by the aforementioned ideals through a combination of influential styles and symbols which were indicative of the political, social, and economic condition of the specified period.
From this transitional time period of the Buddhism expansion came the four panels depicting the stories from the holy text pertaining to the life of the Buddha. The stupas are depicted in chronological order, focusing on the four great miracles in the life of Buddha (Saunders). The Buddha is represented in symbols of trees, pillars, thrones, and the wheel of Dharma. All until the moment when Buddha is shown as human and has reached the enlightenment. Greek and Indian combinations in terms of the iconology are demonstrated throughout the forms that Buddha takes in all four panels. Form of the Buddha in the first panels shows the perfect oval egg for the head, eyebrows which show an Indian bow curve, lotus bud eyes, ears which represent a Sanskrit symbol, and the embodiment of a lion through the wide breast and narrow waist. The head is meant to represent a bull while the arms are indicative of elephant trunks. The hands are lotus petals (Saunders).
Early text suggests that the Buddha was born on the Indian subcontinent during the 5th century BC where his father was an elected chieftain. The Theravada text states that he was born in modern-day Nepal in the year 563 BC, raised in Kapilavastu. One of the four great miracles, depicted as one of the four great events was this birth. In the common artwork, the Buddha emerges from the right hip of his standing mother Maya with a halo. The halo is the symbol of divine radiance and is affiliated with deities and royalty in South Asian communities. The artwork borrows from Greek and Roman art in terms of the wreaths placed around the woman’s head, the people holding cornucopias, and the long-sleeved clothing (Dehejia).
The second great miracle was the Buddha’s enlightenment. After the birth of this prince, it was prophesized by an astrologer that he would either be a king like his father or a holy man upon leaving the palace walls. It is clear that his father was against the notion of a holy man because he was forbidden to leave. Upon his departure, he encountered an old suffering man, a sick suffering man, a corpse, and an ascetic holy man which all encouraged the four sights and his spiritual quest. He began studying under famous religious teachers that day, first mastering meditation. Discovering that mere meditation did not end suffering, the Buddha continued on his path to fasting, holding his breath, and exposing himself to pain in order to end suffering, but this did not work. It was through this near death experience and closeness to the earth that he discovered the idea of moderation in terms of self-mortification and self-indulgence. When he was 35, he sat in a sacred fig tree to meditate in Bodh Gaya, India. He did not rise until he achieved enlightenment. The second piece of artwork shows the Buddha under a tree meditating while he is attacked by demons of Mara.
After achieving enlightenment, a monastic order was instituted at the first teaching of his new band of followers. Teaching the path to awakening, he traveled and taught until his death. The third panel is the first sermon, which is meant to portray the humanity in the Buddha as he preaches to a crowd. The deer in the panel is used to describe the location of Deer Park at Sarnath. The two deer here are meant to demonstrate the willingness and appreciation of the earth and all creations of the enlightenment that the human Buddha attained. Between the two deer the dharma is placed which is an icon from Hindu indicative of kingship. While normally attached to Hindi gods to demonstrate their materialistic authority, in this case it is used to demonstrate the spiritual authority. This panel demonstrates the period which was the first Buddhist law (Dehejia).
The journey to nirvana is the concept demonstrated in the fourth panel. On this panel his death in India is indicative of the entire Buddhist belief. The panel shows chieftains mourning the immense loss while looking over his body with grief and lack of understanding while the monks are at peace, enlightened by the idea that his passing is nothing more than a release from the endless cycle of rebirth.
Dehejia, Vidya. Stupas and Sculptures of Early Buddhism. Asian Art, Vol. 2 No. 2 1989.
Freedberg, David. “The power of images.” Art History 15.2 (1992): 275-278.
Kohn, Michael. The Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen. Shambhala. 1991.
Gombrich, Richard. Theravada Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo. Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1988.
Preziosi, Donald, ed. The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology: A Critical Anthology. Oxford University Press, 1998.
Robinson et al., Buddhist Religions, page xx; Philosophy East and West, vol 54, Williams, Mahayana Buddhism, Routledge, 1st ed., 1989.
Saunders, Dale. Murda: A Study of Symbolic Gestures in Japanese Buddhist Sculptur.e New York Pantheon Books, 1960 pl. 11.