Greco-Buddhist Art: Gandhara Figures at Christie’s New York

Buddhism first came to China in the first century during the Han dynasty through missionaries from India. How is Classical Greek culture related to the development of Buddhist art? Maybe we can get some clues from the sale of Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Works of Art at Christie’s New York. Several figures of Gandhara from the 2nd to 4th century bear some traits of ancient Greek sculptures.

Alexander the Great

Gandhara was an ancient kingdom situated in the northwestern region of Pakistan, around Peshawar. In 327 BC, Alexander the Great conquered Gandhara when he marched eastward. He introduced the culture of Greek sculptures to Gandhara, which became the hub of various cultures, arts and religions. Gandhara culture spread to China in the 1st and 2nd century and later developed into Greco-Buddhism, a cultural syncretism between the Classical Greek culture and Buddhism.

The above two Gandhara figures, a gray schist figure of a standing Buddha and a gray schist figure of a seated Buddha, are believed to be made in the 2nd to 3rd century. The figures were carved with heavy eyelids, sharp nose, thin mouth, curly hair and Greek himation, resembling Hellenistic art.


Greek sculpture on the left and Gandhara sculpture on the right

The one below is a stucco head of Buddha, which is believed to be made in the 3rd and 4th Century. Influenced by Chinese culture, the eyes of the Buddhist figure are smaller and thinner, more of an Eastern style. At the top of the head of the Buddhist figure, there is a three-dimensional oval called the ushnisha. It was thought that the ushnisha was a supernatural cranial protuberance. It is also the representation of achievement of spiritual reliance. Some academics refute this viewpoint and believe the topknot was merely a hair-binding custom in the ancient India society.

The features on Buddhist figures, except the nose, have further evolved with cultural syncretism and are now deviated from Greco-Buddhism. Up until now, most Buddhist figures still keep the sharp nose of Greek Style.


An Important Gray Schist Figure of a Standing Buddha. Gandhara. 2nd/3rd Century.

Lot no.: 603
Height: 81.3cm

  • Walter Randel, New York, 1961.
  • Acquired by Alice M. Kaplan from the above by 1962.

Estimate: US$300,000 - US$500,000


A Gray Schist Figure of a Seated Buddha. Gandhara. 2nd/3rd Century.

Lot no.: 602
Height: 95cm
Estimate: US$30,000 - US$50,000

A Life-Size Stucco Head of Buddha. Gandhara. 3rd/4th Century.

Lot no.: 601
Height: 45cm
Provenance: Acquired by the 1990s
Estimate: US$20,000 - US$30,000


Auction details

Auction house: Christie’s New York
Sale: Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Works of Art
Sale no.: 14484
No. of lots: 49
2017/9/8 - 9|10am - 5pm
2017/9/10|1pm - 5pm
2017/9/11 - 12|10am - 5pm
Auction time: 2017/9/13|2pm