Scanning the Cosmic Buddha

The secrets of a limestone Buddha sculpture from the 6th century are being uncovered with the help of 3D technology. Though headless and handless, the life-size statue has been identified by art historians at Washington D.C.’s Sackler and Freer galleries as Virochana, the generative force behind all phenomena in the universe according to Buddhist texts. The robes of the “Cosmic Buddha,” which were once elaborately painted, are covered with dozens of intricate illustrations portraying the historical Buddha’s life and teachings.

Until recently, scholars and researchers have used paper rubbings to see the Cosmic Buddha’s detailed images more clearly. But this process threatened to wear down the statue’s surface, so in 2011, a team took digital scans of the sculpture, stitched them together, and created a virtual 3D model. An interactive, web-based version is now available to the public both inside and outside the gallery, so that viewers can go online to examine the sculpture, rotate it, adjust lighting, and zoom in for a closer look. The platform also features a guided tour from the Sackler and Freer’s curator of ancient Chinese art.

Readers in the D.C. metro area can see the Cosmic Buddha in stone at the exhibit “Body of Devotion: The Cosmic Buddha in 3D” through December 2016. The rest of us can act as amateur archaeologists from the comfort of our laptops by following this link. 

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