The first western portrayal of the Buddha?

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Twitter still has its uses. While keeping an eye out for new Fake Buddha Quotes to document, I came across a link to a post at a rather eclectic blog called Obsidian Wings. The post was written by someone who calls himself Doctor Science, who I know little about Doctor Science except that he’s from New Jersey and has an MA in theoretical population genetics.

He’s not an art historian or religious scholar, but he’s spotted something interesting in Pieter Aertsen’s Adoration of the Magi. Pieter Aertsen, in case (like me) you haven’t heard of him, lived from 1508 to 1575, and was a Dutch historical painter. According to Wikipedia, “He was born and died in Amsterdam, and painted there and in Antwerp, though his genre scenes were influential in Italy.”

One of Doctor Science’s “sprogs” (children to non-Brits) commented that the young man in the center looked like the Buddha. And the sprog seems to be right.

Could this be an image of the Buddha, given the time? It’s worth bearing in mind that in 1954, archaeologists excavating a Viking ruin in Helgö in Ekerö Island in Lake Mälaren in Sweden found a 10 cm (4″) Buddha statue that scholars have pinned to the Swat valley in North-western India. That wasn’t the only exotic artifact found at that site. Items from Byzantium and Egypt were also excavated. Although at the time Aertsen was active, Dutch trading with Asia had not yet begun — the first Dutch expedition round the Cape to the far east took place in 1595, it’s not inconceivable that artifacts could have made their way, through other means (which I’ll discuss shortly) to Europe.

Doctor Science hypothesizes that Aertsen may have seen a Buddha statue, and made a quick sketch, not quite understanding what he was seeing with respect to the Buddha’s hair-style, which is portrayed in the painting by a kind of “helmet” made of straps, along with some kind of top-knot.. To shaw what he might have been trying to represent, here’s a 15th century Buddha head from Thailand, with the Buddha’s hair shown in tight curls, along with a top-knot. The resemblance is striking, and it’s easy to see how Aertsen might have thought this was a helmet.

The figure Aertsen paints is very androgynous, which is not uncommon in Buddha statues, especially from Thailand. Aertsen says that this figure is “an attendant to the old King who’s greeting Jesus.” Interestingly, he’s the only person in the room who’s being looked at, besides the infant Jesus; the younger attendant to the old King is gazing at him. Doctor Science says that the three Magi can to be seem as representing Europe, Africa, and Asia, with the oldest of the three being Asia. This connects the “Buddha” as an Asian figure.

The “Buddha” is in vaguely military garb, with a breastplate and kilt, which is obviously very different from how a Buddha statue would portray the Buddha’s dress. This makes me wonder if Aertsen saw not a full-body statue, but merely a head, like the one shown above. Perhaps, thinking that the Buddha’s “do” was a helmet, he decided to portray the rest of the body in this “military-lite” fashion. The scanty armor of the “Buddha” would fit with him being more of a prince than a mere attendant, which is perhaps why he’s being looked at by the boy servant holding “Asia’s” robe.

As Doctor Science points out, Aertsen worked in Antwerp from about 1535 until 1556 or so, and from 1508 Antwerp was the site of a Portuguese “factory” which served as a northern European distribution center for Portuguese spices from Asia. It’s certainly conceivable that Portuguese traders brought a Buddha statue back to Europe while returning from one of their spice runs.

Doctor Science asks, “There’s a great project here for someone who can find and read the primary sources: is there any direct evidence that images of the Buddha arrived in Europe before 1600, or even 1700?”

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  • Interesting! Especially since I live in Holland. The portuguese connection seems a plausible explanation for buddha images reaching the low countries in the 16th Cy. Dutch merchants however had little interested in buddhism when they first colonised asia. I know of no Dutch interest in the living tradition in Sri Lanka, and in Indonesia the Dutch left it to the englishman Raffles tot discover the ruins of the great buddhist centre of Borobudur, even though they had certainly heard the rumours from locals. Only the doctor Von Siebold, stationed in Nagasaki, Japan, showed any interest in local culture. His collection of buddhist artefacts is on show in two museums in Leiden.

    And buddhism in the west goes back much further of course. According to wikipedia, buddhism reached the mediterranean around the 3rd cy BC as a result of Asoka’s mission to the Greek states (which then extended as far as India). There are supposed to have been a dozen buddhist communities in the ancient west. Including one in Jerusalem, which returns us to the picture of Jesus receiving a visit by wise men from the east. The stories of the birth of Jesus and of Buddha bear some remarkable similarities, suppose the one was inspired by the other…


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