SOAS University of London

History of Art and Archaeology

The Figure of the Buddha: Theory, Practice and the Making of Buddhist Art History

Module Code:
Module Not Running 2022/2023
FHEQ Level:
Taught in:
Term 2

This course explores the image of the so-called Historical Buddha as a product of theoretical and practical concerns – and as a site of their (re)production, past and present. In opening, we gauge the difficulties and potentialities of developing interpretive tools engaging with and derived from Buddhist points of view. Particular attention is given here to questions of subjectivity as they inform art historical narratives as well as theories and practices associated with the Buddha image. An exploration of foundational art historical debates on the 'aniconic' and 'anthropomorphic' in early Buddhist art informs discussions of the relevance of these categories in analysing images of the 'Historical' Buddha in other contexts. Subsequent work focuses on the nature of the Buddha’s body and the implications of its representation as evidenced in Theravadin traditions. The use of the Buddha figure in modern and contemporary Southeast Asian art is also considered in this context. Particular attention is given to iconographic and aesthetic analyses of a series of Buddha image types. Four areas of investigation are taken up: Buddha statue consecration ritual, legends of ‘first’ Buddha images, legends, practices and images commemorating the Buddha’s death (or entry into nirvana), and the Walking Buddha.

The module contributes to the MA in Art and Archaeology programme in enabling students to develop capacity for critical analysis of both the image of the 'Historical' Buddha and the ideological frameworks in which the academic discipline of Buddhist art history continues to evolve. The Theravadin focus enriches and diversifies the programme offerings. The theoretical orientation of the module additionally brings the historical and the contemporary into dialogue.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

  • Critically consider how philosophies and ideologies of subjectivity have impacted and continue to impact Buddhist art history.
  • Identify modes of understanding the nature of the Buddha’s body and its representation as evidenced in Theravadin ritual practices and texts
  • Conduct formal analyses of Theravadin Buddha images in iconographic and aesthetic terms.
  • Discuss relations between theory and practice with regards to the image of the 'Historical' Buddha
  • Analyse images of the Buddha in contemporary Southeast Asian contexts with reference to the long history of Buddhist art and art historical production.


  • One hour Lecture, one hour Seminar

Method of assessment

  • One 1 000 words essay (worth 30%)
  • One 2 000 words essay (worth 70%)


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules