Digital scans of the “Cosmic Buddha” have unlocked images that are almost impossible to see with the naked eye. (Smithsonian’s Digitalization Program Office)

When it’s not making dinosaurs and superheroes pop off of movie screens, 3-D technology is doing a great deal to help archaeologists and art historians. “Body of Devotion: The Cosmic Buddha in 3D,” a new exhibit at the Sackler, aims to teach people about the latest developments in 3-D scanning and about Buddhism, all with just one sculpture.

The star of the exhibit, the so-called “Cosmic Buddha,” is a life-size limestone rendering of a monk that dates to sixth-century China. Dozens of intricate illustrations are carved into its robe, telling a vast array of stories from the Buddha’s life and teachings — though they are hard to see with the naked eye.

For years, researchers and art historians have created rubbings on paper for a better look, but the process threatened to wear down the surface of the sculpture (which is already missing its original head and hands). So when the Smithsonian launched its digitization program’s 3-D lab a couple of years ago, the “Cosmic Buddha” was one of the first objects to be scanned into the database.

Curator J. Keith Wilson was astounded by how much better he could understand the sculpture after the scanning. Not only could he see the contents of scenes clearly, but he could also isolate and break down the surface into more readable units, which helped him decipher the stories.

On the back of the sculpture, he found “one of the most complex illustrations of the Sutra, a conflation of three or four events brought together in one illustration,” he says. “This is one of the earliest instances of this kind of combination. Normally it would just be one scene.” This led Wilson to conclude that the “Cosmic Buddha” was likely used as a teaching tool when it was created. It’s so complex that “it would take a teacher to explain what’s going on,” he says.

“Body of Devotion” features the actual sculpture, ink rubbings and a digital flat map of the surface, but the highlight of the display will appear on touchscreen monitors in the gallery, where visitors can zoom in on the carvings and learn how 3-D scanning revealed the sculpture’s secrets. “It’ll be almost like a lab,” Wilson says, “where you can move back and forth between the real thing and the digital tools.”

‘Cosmic’ connection
Can’t make it to the Sackler? You can explore the complete scans of the “Cosmic Buddha” sculpture, with all the same interactive tools as at the museum, online at 3d.si.edu. “We’re democratizing the museum,” curator J. Keith Wilson says. “We want to make material available to colleagues in China and elsewhere.”

Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave. SW; Sat. through December, free.