Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Nepalese Sculpture

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The Nepalese sculptures in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art were created primarily by the Newars, one of Nepal's many ethnic groups, in the Kathmandu valley, an area encompassing about 200 square miles in central Nepal. Predominantly Buddhist, Newari artists became renowned throughout Asia for the high quality of their work. At times, Nepalese style had tremendous influence on the art of China and Tibet, as both countries imported art and artists from Nepal to adorn their temples and monasteries.


The majority of these sculptures were created in the service of religion, and although most of the artists were Buddhist, neither a Hindu nor a Buddhist style is discernible. As in medieval India, the same artists probably produced art for both religions. Nepal is one of the few places in the world where Buddhism and Hinduism have coexisted peacefully for almost 2,000 years. Although Hinduism is the state religion, the two religions are not only historically entwined but also share many similar aspirations that make them far less distinguishable than in theory. At the popular level in Nepal, it makes little or no difference whether one receives blessings from a Hindu or Buddhist deity as long as that deity is efficacious.


Nepalese sculptors worked in many media, including stone, metal, wood, and terracotta. Their metal sculptures are either heavily gilded or, if the gold has worn off, have a slightly reddish patina that derives from their high copper content. Many of these, especially later ones, are decorated with inlaid semi-precious stones. Wooden sculptures were generally architectural, many serving as struts to support roofs, as door surrounds or as decorations. Works in terracotta are comparatively rare.


Nepalese sculpture is a conservative tradition, with slight changes in proportion or decorative details appearing over hundreds of years. Stylistically, Nepalese sculpture grew out of the art of Gupta India, and later was influenced by that of Pala India. However, Nepalese artists created a distinctive style of their own, which can be recognized even on early bronzes such as the Standing Vajrapani (Standing Vajrapani, L.1993.51.5), dated to the sixth to seventh century. Nepalese artists later developed a distinctive physiognomy for their deities, with long, languid eyes and wider faces than those in eastern Indian models. A tendency toward ornamental flourishes, exaggerated postures, and a repertoire of unique jewelry styles is also symptomatic of the Nepalese sculptural tradition.

Kathryn Selig Brown
Independent Scholar