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A 3-D digital scan throws a Buddha statue’s carvings into sharp relief

What makes this sixth-century Chinese object, the Cosmic Buddha, exceptional are the detailed narrative scenes that cover its surface, representing moments in the life of the historical Buddha as well as the Realms of Existence, a symbolic map of the Budd
What makes this sixth-century Chinese object, the Cosmic Buddha, exceptional are the detailed narrative scenes that cover its surface, representing moments in the life of the historical Buddha as well as the Realms of Existence, a symbolic map of the Buddhist world. A laser passing over the surface of an object produces a digital scan made of millions of measurement points. These data can be manipulated in a variety of ways to reveal new information and advance research.
Image courtesy of Smithsonian’s Digitalization Program Office

WASHINGTON — For nearly nine decades, the Cosmic Buddha statue stood alone at the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art.

Museum-goers would pass by the headless, handless statue, a relic of sixth-century China, without a second glance. Few came close enough to even notice the intricate scenes covering the entire stone surface whose paint had worn off.

When exhibit curator Keith Wilson first arrived at the museum 10 years ago, he understood why the statue didn’t catch everyone’s eye.

“It is a difficult sculpture to love because it’s so complicated,” he said. “It’s not sensuous. It’s not a beautiful, white marble surface.”

Yet, as an expert in ancient Chinese objects, he understood the major religious and historic implications of those scenes carved on the form-fitting robe depicting Buddhism’s six realms of existence, from the heavenly realm of the devas at the top to the hot and cold hells of the dead at the bottom.

Tired of seeing the statue’s significance ignored, he chose to have it scanned in 3-D for the Smithsonian’s digitization project, a process that began in 2011. Now, it is accessible online as an interactive 3-D model showcasing in brilliant clarity images of humans and animals in detailed landscapes across the length of the Buddha’s body.

And because it’s online, this object of devotion is now available outside the confines of the museum gallery.

“You can’t take a field trip to Washington, but you can use these 3-D models remotely,” said David Morgan, professor of religious studies at Duke University. “They give a sense of the object, a sense of its scale, a far better sense of its complexity as an object and as a surface. It’s really quite amazing.”

The Cosmic Buddha stands in the lower level of the adjacent Arthur M. Sackler Gallery as the center of an exhibit titled “Body of Devotion: The Cosmic Buddha in 3D,” which closes July 9.

Interactive screens, informational posters and two touch-screen computers tell how technology was able to capture the intricate carvings without damaging the statue, as previous methods such as ink rubbings had done.

The technology has also brought about an added benefit: For years, museums have largely ignored the religious teachings that form a large part of their art collections. 3-D scanning allows viewers to explore it once more.

The process “allowed me to see way more detail on the surface, which is also encouraging me to go back to the sutras themselves,” Wilson said, referring to the texts that form the basis of Buddhist wisdom teachings. “You can see the decisions that illustrators have made in how to represent a story and its basic moral.”

Wilson believes the statue was created to be a teaching tool. So, he created a virtual tour of the model explaining what some of the scenes depict.

The whole process brought home the potential innate in the sculpture and reminded him how religious art once served as visual learning experience.

Over the past few centuries, Western societybegan separating religion from art, said Eileen Daily, director of the Doctor of Ministry in Transformational Leadership at Boston University. Mostly, she said, this came as a result of generalized literacy.

“Before that, religion was always involved with music, and statues, and paintings and dramas,” she said. “ … It just was part of one’s religious expression for a long time in most places. So it’s almost like we’re the ones who want to separate everything.”

Technology is now allowing museums to reunite the two — the artistic qualities of the work as well its religious meaning and purpose.

For example, Daily created an app in 2011, which users can take to museums or churches to learn about the history and religious significance of the artwork around them.

Daily originally planned to write a book to help the average person understand religious art, but she soon realized there was a smarter approach.

“What it boiled down to is no one is gonna bring a book to the museum,” she said. “So what one thing are people going to have in the museum? They’re going to have their phones.”

The app exclusively covers Christian art and is available only through Google Play for now.

That constant access to cellphones and technology also means works like the Cosmic Buddha are no longer exclusive to museums. Thanks to the internet, believers and scholars across the world can access its 3-D model from the comfort of their homes or as part of classroom instruction.

Wilson sees the prospect of more uses for 3-D imaging in studying Buddhist history and religion. For example, he said, curators and scholars can order up scans of all the objects in a Buddhist temple and re-create the space virtually, even if the pieces lie scattered in collections across the world.

Overall, Morgan said, technology and museums are changing each other for the better.

“Traditional museum practice tended to be to isolate the object, to put it on a plain white pedestal in an airless cubic space because the focus was on the object as an object, not on the object as part of a ritual process,” he said.

“So I think if you look at museum practice universally now, you’re seeing a very important shift that wants to move to try to understand objects as interactive. These 3-D technologies allow that.”

(The interactive “Body of Devotion” exhibit will close July 9, but the Cosmic Buddha will return to the Freer on Oct. 14.)