READING BUDDHIST ART: An Illustrated Guide to Buddhist Signs and Symbols

Meher McArthur, Author
Meher McArthur, Author . Thames & Hudson $31.95 (216p) ISBN 978-0-500-51089-6
Reviewed on: 10/28/2002
Release date: 10/01/2002
Paperback - 216 pages - 978-0-500-28428-5
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McArthur, curator of East Asian Art at the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, has set for herself no small task: to create a concise, accessible primer to the intricate world of Buddhist art. She succeeds, although she eschews most chronological and geographical developments in Buddhist painting, sculpture, architecture and other arts in favor of a simplified, broad overview. After an excellent distillation of Buddhism's 2,500-year history, she focuses on the key figures in the bewilderingly complex Buddhist pantheon, succinctly discussing each one's identity, principal areas of worship, and specific attributes. Next, she identifies the symbolism and function of Buddhism's major ritual objects, symbols and signs, such as the meaning of the various mudras (hand gestures) of the Buddhas and bodhisattvas. Finally, she briefly discusses 14 major Buddhist sites in Asia, including the unfortunate destruction of the two colossal standing Buddhas in Afghanistan at the hands of the Taliban in 2001. She observes the statues' impressive international appeal, even in antiquity: "In the seventh century [CE], the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang" took note of the two large Buddhas "with their golden hues and dazzling ornamentation." The book itself is generously embellished with 304 black-and-white illustrations, including dozens of original line drawings washed with olive-colored highlights. McArthur avoids issues of Buddhist doctrine to a fault; integrating into her discussion the distinguishing characteristics of the various schools of Buddhism (mainly Mahayana, Vajrayana and Theravada) would clarify elements of each tradition's unique art forms and would add texture to her otherwise superb introduction. (Nov.)

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