This relief scene from around 100 to 300 depicts the dream of Maya, the mother of the historical Buddha. Queen Maya is asleep in her palace under a full moon. An attendant stands guard outside. In her dream, a white elephant enters her side. This is a miraculous conception that results in the birth of the future Buddha. This scene, along with others from the life of the Buddha, would have been recognizable to viewers at the time it was made, as the scenes from the life of Christ on the walls of a cathedral would have been familiar to medieval European viewers.
Detail: The Conception of the Buddha-to-be in Queen Maya’s dream, approx. 100–300. Pakistan; ancient region of Gandhara. Phyllite. The Avery Brundage Collection, B64S5.
What other scenes from the life of the Buddha are important?
Several scenes from the life of the Buddha are shown together in the galleries at the Asian Art Museum. There are scenes of the Buddha’s birth in the Lumbini gardens, his departure from the palace at night (symbolizing the renouncement of his princely life), his defeat of Mara at the time of his enlightenment, his sermon at the Deer Park in Sarnath, and his death surrounded by his disciples, and subsequent attainment of Nirvana. In some works of art, you can see many of these scenes surrounding a central image of the Buddha.
What was the function of these objects?
Fragments that are sculpted on one side like this are called friezes. They would have decorated the wall of a Buddhist monument or monastic building, at the foot of a pedestal or along a stair riser. These images told a story to worshipers, essentially reminding them of key moments in the life of the Buddha. They reinforced concepts in visual form for a largely illiterate population.
What is the style of this piece and where did it come from?
It is likely that this piece came from the region of Gandhara, part of the Kushan empire. The Kushana rulers had migrated from central Asia, and ruled parts of central Asia and northern India. This area was a crossroads of trade and cultures. It was during this time that the first images of the Buddha and related figures appear in large numbers. The figural style, attention to anatomy, and interest in drapery revealing forms of the body recall Hellenistic sculpture. Centuries of trade and the exchange of artistic ideas resulted in a unique aesthetic that fused influences from the Indian, Greek, and West Asian worlds.