Chinese treasures in Columbia University basement

Arthur Sackler donated a huge collection of 3000 or so Asian antiquities to Columbia University in 1970. Out of that group, 22 particularly notable Chinese stone sculptures ended up uninventoried and unloved in the basement until collector and Columbia donor Leopold Swergold was allowed access.

The display includes steles, Buddha heads, standing bodhisattvas, tomb doors, a large section of a mortuary bed and smaller icons. Their startling diversity makes the show feel much bigger than it is, and it reflects the unstable, culturally up-for-grabs phase of China’s history from the fall of the Han Dynasty in the early third century to the rise of the Tang in the early seventh century, sometimes likened to the Middle Ages in Europe.

Over those four centuries China was especially porous. Nomadic peoples from Inner Mongolia took turns invading and setting up kingdoms, sometimes being absorbed by local populations and sometimes being repulsed. Buddhism and its artistic styles, traveling along the Silk Road with monks from India and Central Asia, were part of that flux. The thirst for stone images of Buddha and bodhisattvas gave stone sculpture a boost, as did Indian traditions of carving figures and entire temples out of walls and caves of living rock.

You can get a sense of the range of sculptural styles and techniques from the pieces on exhibit. They testify to the cultural changes of the period.

A 6th c. Northern Wei dynasty funerary stele is a glorious mixture of Buddhism, ancestor worship, dragons and images of partying in the afterlife. An Eastern Wei votive stele made just a few decades after that is all about the Buddha, indicating a major religious shift in a short period of time.

The sculptures are now on display at the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Gallery at Columbia University through June 21.

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