Silk Road transmission of art  

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The Silk Road, transmitter of Western culture
The Silk Road, transmitter of Western culture
1872 photograph of the western face of the Greek Parthenon
1872 photograph of the western face of the Greek Parthenon

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Many artistic influences transited along the Silk Road, especially through the Central Asia, where Hellenistic, Iranian, Indian and Chinese influence were able to intermix. In particular Greco-Buddhist art represent one of the most vivid examples of this interaction.


Scythian art

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

Hellenistic art

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 bronze mirrors, dated between 300-200 BCE.

Greco-Buddhist 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, China until it reached Japan in the 6th century .

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


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.

Wind god

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 Fujin.

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

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 CE, 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.

The clearest one are from 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.

Eastern iconography in the West

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.


  • "Religions and the Silk Road" by Richard C. Foltz (St. Martin's Press, 1999) ISBN 0-312-23338-8
  • "The Diffusion of Classical Art in Antiquity" by John Boardman (Princeton University Press, 1994) ISBN 0-691-03680-2
  • "Old World Encounters. Cross-cultural contacts and exchanges in pre-modern times" by Jerry H.Bentley (Oxford University Press, 1993) ISBN 0-19-507639-7
  • "Alexander the Great: East-West Cultural contacts from Greece to Japan" (NHK and Tokyo National Museum, 2003)
  • "The Greeks in Bactria and India" W.W. Tarn, Cambridge University Press
  • "De l'Indus √† l'Oxus, Arch√©ologie de l'Asie Centrale", Osmund Bopearachchi, Christine Sachs, ISBN 2-9516679-2-2
  • "The Crossroads of Asia, Transformation in image and symbols", 1992, ISBN 0-9518399-1-8
  • "The Tarim Mummies", Mallory and Mair, Thames and Hudson, 2000, ISBN 0-500-05101-1

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