Losing Their Religion ; This Fine Collection of Sixth-Century Chinese Buddhas Is Being Shown in a London Art Gallery. but When, If Ever, Asks TOM LUBBOCK, Do Objects of Religious Devotion Become, for Us, Simply Works of Art?

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Some people find a conflict between science and religion; some between science and art. But the border disputes between art and religion are just as troublesome. Go to the Royal Academy and see which side you're on.

In 1996, a great find was made in the playing-fields of a school at Qingzhou, in the Chinese province of Shandong. Four hundred pieces of Buddhist stone sculpture were discovered in the ground. They had been deliberately buried there. The pieces dated mainly from the sixth century, but had been buried in the 12th, and were then already worn and damaged. Many of them showed signs of earlier repair. The best-preserved were stacked in the centre of the burial area, the most fragmentary - a load of detached heads - placed round the edge. They don't seem to have suffered iconoclasm (the faces haven't been attacked). It's quite likely that the site was a deposit for old Buddha images, where obsolete but still sacred sculptures were reverently disposed of. Thirty-five of them have been doing a short tour of Europe, and can now be seen in Return of the Buddha at the RA's upstairs Sackler Galleries.

They are commanding presences. They depict either the Buddha, the enlightened/ awakened one, or Bodhisattvas - near-Buddhas who have held back from personal enlightenment in order to help others along the road. The standard image of the Buddha is a seated figure, but these mostly stand, either singly or in "triads", a Buddha between two smaller Bodhisattvas - sometimes with halos, sometimes against an almond-shaped mandorla decorated with angels. Many still have traces of their original pigment and gilding. There is a good deal of limb-loss and breakage. But a sense of strong calm uprightness generally survives even decapitations.

A visitor new to Buddhist art will want to get the rudiments of the imagery. It is easy enough to tell the the difference between a Buddha and a Bodhisattva, even when they're not standing in threesomes. The Bodhisattvas are worldly princes and have a headdress and quite fancy garments, while the Buddha has a simple monk's robe and a kind of cap, rather like a bobbly bathing cap. He also often has a protuberance rising on the top of his head - the ushnisha - and always very long, floppy earlobes, though these are the first things to break off, along with (more importantly) the fingers and hands. Only the best-preserved Buddhas retain their serene gestures of help and giving.

But all of them address you, and this puts you on the spot. You have to decide whether you're going to attune yourself to an artistic or a religious response. Will you dwell on the carving, the volume, the stylistic variations of these sculptures? Or will you rather try to take them as a focus for religious feeling?

This, after all, is how these figures address you, with their stance, their gestures, their strangely ambiguous expressions. It's not that to look at them you need to be, or to pretend to be, a Buddhist. But you do need to imagine the particular kind of spirituality they project. It's a question of the relationship between statue and viewer that's offered. It is very different from the ways in which Jesus effigies perform.

The Buddhas and Bodhisattvas face straight ahead, but their eyes are closed, or almost closed, in a sleepy undulation of lids. There is rarely any exchange of looks between statue and viewer. The mouth is closed too, often in a kind of smile whose tone is hard to catch. Does it smile to itself, or to you, or both? It can seem kindly, supercilious, innocent, knowing, like a smug puss or with suppressed glee or almost stupefied or - to quote the poet and critic William Empson - like "the strange tight- lipped alert smile seen on flying aces". (This is very true of some of the heads here: they have just that chipper Douglas Bader look.) Empson's study The Faces of the Buddha is one the great lost works of criticism. …