Buddhism is the single common thread uniting the Asian world, from India to South-East Asia and through Central Asia to China, Korea and Japan. To guide and inspire believers, innumerable symbols and images were made, beginning in India in the 3rd century BC. This phenomenally diverse tradition includes not only frescoes, relief carvings, colossal statues, silk embroideries and bronze ritual objects but also rock-cut shrines with a thousand Buddhas, the glorious stupas of South-East Asia and the pagodas of the Far East, the massive “mandala in stone” of Borobudur in Java and entire 13th-century temple complexes at Angkor in Cambodia. The author describes all the Buddhist schools and cultures, and explains their imagery, from Tibetan cosmic diagrams and Korean folk art to early Sri Lankan sites and Japanese Zen gardens.
The 1993 edition of Fisher’s “Buddhist Art and Architecture” was reprinted, with revisions, in 2002. The cover of the revised edition is like the 1993 edition (i.e. the Kansas Guanyin), but now framed within a diamond-shape which is inset into a black background. The text is current on recent scholarship, such as the role of aniconism in Early Buddhist art, and cosmological interpretations of Angkor Wat. Attention is paid to the organic development of Buddhist art styles as they evolved in being transmitted from country to country, although I wish that even more emphasis had been put on this.
The book is organized by region: of its 200 pages, approximately 40-50 pages each are devoted to India, China, Korea/Japan, and Southeast Asia. The book’s wide area coverage is both an advantage and a disadvantage, since much has been left out. For example, there is only one paragraph on the life of the Buddha himself, and not even a mention of Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavillion), arguably Japan’s most famous and beautiful architectural icon. I would also have liked to see a greater use of color illustrations (only 32 of 179, in the present edition) .
I hope that readers who start with this book will go on to more in-depth treatments, such as the same author’s excellent introduction to the Art of Tibet (Thames & Hudson, 1998).