Silk Road transmission of art

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1st century CE Map of Silk Road
Chinese jade and steatite plaques, in the Scythian-style animal art of the steppes. 4th-3rd century BCE. British Museum.

Many artistic influences transited along the Silk Road, especially through the Central Asia, where Hellenistic, Iranian, Indian and Chinese influence were able to interact. In particular Greco-Buddhist art represent one of the most vivid examples of this interaction. As shown on the 1st century CE Silk Road map, there is no single road but a whole network of long-distance routes: mainly two land routes and one sea route.

Scythian art[edit]

Following contacts of metropolitan China with nomadic western and northwestern border territories in the 8th century BCE, gold was introduced from Central Asia, and Chinese jade carvers began to make imitation designs of the steppes, adopting the Scythian-style animal art of the steppes (descriptions of animals locked in combat). This style is particularly reflected in the rectangular belt plaques made of gold and bronze with alternate versions in jade and steatite.[1]

Even though that happened, the correspondence between the "Scythians" as an ethnic group and their material culture is still subject to discussion and research. The subject is part of the broader "nomadic" and "sedentary" debate.

Hellenistic art[edit]

Western-influenced Zhou vase with glass inlays, 4th-3rd century BCE, British Museum.
Zhou/Han bronze mirror with glass inlays, perhaps incorporated Greco-Roman artistic patterns (rosette flowers, geometric lines, and glass inlays). Victoria and Albert Museum.

Following the expansion of the Greco-Bactrians into Central Asia, Greek influences on Han art have often been suggested (Hirth, Rostovtzeff). Designs with rosette flowers, geometric lines, and glass inlays, suggestive of Hellenistic influences, can be found on some early Han dynasty bronze mirrors.[2][3]

Greco-Buddhist art[edit]


Iconographic evolution of the Buddha. Left: A buddha in the Greco-Buddhist art of Gandhara, 3rd century CE. Right: A Buddha in Kamakura, Japan (1252).
A Buddha in Seokguram, South Korea. It was influenced by Gandhara art.

The image of the Buddha, originating during the 1st century CE in northern India (areas of Gandhara and Mathura) was transmitted progressively through Central Asia and then China until it reached Japan in the 6th century.[4]

To this day however the transmission of many iconographical details is still visible, such as the Hercules inspiration behind the Nio guardian deities in front of Japanese Buddhist temples, or representations of the Buddha reminiscent of Greek art such as the Buddha in Kamakura.

See also: History of Buddhism, Buddhist art, Greco-Buddhist art

Eastern iconography in the West[edit]

Some elements of western iconography were adopted from the East along the Silk Road. The aureole in Christian art first appeared in the 5th century, but practically the same device was known several centuries earlier, in non-Christian art. It is found in some Persian representations of kings and Gods, and appears on coins of the Kushan kings Kanishka, Huvishka and Vasudeva, as well as on most representations of the Buddha in Greco-Buddhist art from the 1st century CE. Another image which appears to have transferred from China via the Silk Road is the symbol of the Three hares, showing three animals running in a circle. It has been traced back to the Sui dynasty in China, and is still to be found in sacred sites in many parts of Western Europe, and especially in churches in Dartmoor, Devon.

Case studies[edit]


Iconographical evolution from the Greek god Herakles to the Japanese god Shukongōshin. From left to right: 1) Herakles (Louvre Museum). 2) Herakles on coin of Greco-Bactrian king Demetrius I. 3) Vajrapani, the protector of the Buddha, depicted as Herakles in the Greco-Buddhist art of Gandhara. 4) Shukongōshin, manifestation of Vajrapani, as protector deity of Buddhist temples in Japan.

Another Buddhist deity, named Shukongoshin, one of the wrath-filled protector deities of Buddhist temples in Japan, is also an interesting case of transmission of the image of the famous Greek god Herakles to the Far-East along the Silk Road. Herakles was used in Greco-Buddhist art to represent Vajrapani, the protector of the Buddha, and his representation was then used in China and Japan to depict the protector gods of Buddhist temples.[5]

Wind god[edit]

Iconographical evolution of the Wind God. Left: Greek Wind God from Hadda, 2nd century. Middle: Wind God from (Kızıl), Tarim Basin, 7th century. Right: Japanese Wind God Fūjin, 17th century.

Various other artistic influences from the Silk Road can be found in Asia, one of the most striking being that of the Greek Wind God Boreas, transiting through Central Asia and China to become the Japanese Shinto wind god Fūjin.[6]

In consistency with Greek iconography for Boreas, the Japanese wind god holds above his head with his two hands a draping or "wind bag" in the same general attitude. The abundance of hair have been kept in the Japanese rendering, as well as exaggerated facial features.

Floral scroll pattern[edit]

Transmission of the flower scroll pattern. Top: Gandhara frieze, 2nd century. Middle left: Chinese vase, 6th century. Middle right: Japanese temple tile, 7th century, Nara. Bottom: Tile detail from a Japanese contemporary house, Tokyo, 2005.

Finally, the Greek artistic motif of the floral scroll was transmitted from the Hellenistic world to the area of the Tarim Basin around the 2nd century CE, as seen in Serindian art and wooden architectural remains. It then was adopted by China between the 4th and 6th century, where it is found on tiles and ceramics, and was then transmitted to Japan where it is found quite literally in the decoration of the roof tiles of Japanese Buddhist temples from around the 7th century.[7]

The clearest one are from the 7th century Nara temple building tiles, some of them exactly depicting vines and grapes. These motifs have evolved towards more symbolic representations, but essentially remain to this day in the roof tile decorations of many Japanese traditional-style buildings.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "There is evidence of gold belt-plaques with "Scythian" "animal style" art, greaves, barrows and other indications of the penetration of steppe cultures south of the Yangzi before the Han period" (Mallory and Mair "The Tarim Mummies", p.329)
  2. ^ Zhou bowl: "RED EARTHENWARE BOWL, DECORATED WITH A SLIP AND INLAID WITH GLASS PASTE. Eastern Zhou period, 4th-3rd century BC. This bowl was probably intended to copy a more precious and possibly foreign vessel in bronze or even silver. Glass was little used in China. Its popularity at the end of the Eastern Zhou period was probably due to foreign influence." British Museum notice to the bowl (2005)
  3. ^ "The things which China received from the Graeco-Iranian world- the pomegranate and other "Chang-Kien" plants, the heavy equipment of the cataphract, the traces of Greeks influence on Han art (such as) the famous white bronze mirror of the Han period with Graeco-Bactrian designs (...) in the Victoria and Albert Museum" (W. W. Tarn, The Greeks in Bactria and India, 1980, pp. 363-364)
  4. ^ "Needless to say, the influence of Greek art on Japanese Buddhist art, via the Buddhist art of Gandhara and India, was already partly known in, for example, the comparison of the wavy drapery of the Buddha images, in what was, originally, a typical Greek style" (Katsumi Tanabe, "Alexander the Great, East-West cultural contacts from Greece to Japan", p19)
  5. ^ "The origin of the image of Vajrapani should be explained. This deity is the protector and guide of the Buddha Sakyamuni. His image was modelled after that of Hercules. (...) The Gandharan Vajrapani was transformed in Central Asia and China and afterwards transmitted to Japan, where it exerted stylistic influences on the wrestler-like statues of the Guardina Deities (Nio)." (Katsumi Tanabe, "Alexander the Great, East-West cultural contacts from Greece to Japan", p23)
  6. ^ "The Japanese wind god images do not belong to a separate tradition apart from that of their Western counter-parts but share the same origins. (...) One of the characteristics of these Far Eastern wind god images is the wind bag held by this god with both hands, the origin of which can be traced back to the shawl or mantle worn by Boreas/ Oado." (Katsumi Tanabe, "Alexander the Great, East-West cultural contacts from Greece to Japan", p21)
  7. ^ The transmission of the floral scroll pattern from West to East is presented in the regular exhibition of Ancient Japanese Art, at the Tokyo National Museum.


  • Alexander the Great: East-West Cultural contacts from Greece to Japan. Tokyo: NHK Puromōshon and Tokyo National Museum, 2003.
  • Jerry H.Bentley. Old World Encounters: Cross-cultural Contacts and Exchanges in Pre-modern Times. Oxford–NY: Oxford University Press, 1993. ISBN 0-19-507639-7
  • John Boardman. The Diffusion of Classical Art in Antiquity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994. ISBN 0-691-03680-2
  • Osmund Bopearachchi, Christian Landes, and Christine Sachs. De l'Indus à l'Oxus : Archéologie de l'Asie centrale. Lattes, France: Association IMAGO & Musée de Lattes, 2003. ISBN 2-9516679-2-2
  • Elizabeth Errington, Joe Cribb, & Maggie Claringbull, eds. The Crossroads of Asia: Transformation in Image and Symbols. Cambridge: Ancient India and Iran Trust, 1992, ISBN 0-9518399-1-8
  • Richard Foltz. Religions of the Silk Road: Premodern Patterns of Globalization, 2nd edn. NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. ISBN 978-0-230-62125-1
  • J.P. Mallory & Victor Mair. The Tarim Mummies. London: Thames and Hudson, 2000. ISBN 0-500-05101-1
  • William Woodthorpe Tarn. The Greeks in Bactria and India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1951.

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