Number 225 June, 2012
The Image of the Winged Celestial and Its Travels along the Silk Road
by Patricia Eichenbaum Karetzky
Winged celestials are a consistent feature in Buddhist art. Like so much of Buddhist imagery, they derive from the West and appear in the earliest extant Buddhist art. Associated with flight and the ascent into the ethereal zone, they convey spirituality. For centuries flying divinities were a regular feature, and during the Kushan era (first to third century) monks, merchants and missionaries brought them with Buddhist texts and icons east along the Silk Road. Thus representations of winged celestials can be found in early Buddhist art in Central Asia and medieval China. This paper will trace the evolution of the image of the Buddhist anthropomorphic flying heavenly spirit beginning with its earliest appearance in India, through its development in the area of Gandhāra (parts of Northern India, Afghanistan and modern Pakistan) during the Kushan era, and its transmission to Chinese Central Asia, before analyzing the appearance and role of these celestials in medieval Chinese art. Among the foci of analysis are a consideration of the topology of angels and a brief etymological and visual survey, for there are a variety of heavenly creatures.
Buddhist art developed late in India, for reasons that are surmised but not known. For the first three hundred years there appears to be no evidence of “Buddhist art” in permanent materials. Things changed under the leadership of the famous Buddhist king Aśoka (300–232 BCE) of the Mauryan dynasty (321–185 BCE), whose mid-life conversion to Buddhism resulted in a proliferation of activities celebrating his belief, among which the building of stone monuments with decorative programs stands out. Many of the images employed in this earliest stage of art were borrowed from foreign artistic traditions. One obvious source was the neighboring empire of Persia, where in addition to the use of stone, certain decorative motifs such as the lotus, lion, animal capitals, and winged anthropomorphic creatures appear over the centuries. For example, engraved on a tall stele at the Palace built by Ashurnasirpal II in the Assyrian city of Nimrud in the ninth century BCE, and now preserved in the British Museum, are a pair of tall winged figures shown in profile with long beards, dressed hair, tall caps, skirts, a scarf, and large wings; they flank the sacred tree.