Art That Inspires Me · Asian Art

Art That Inspires Me: Japanese Buddhist Deity

Some of you guys may remember that I visited the Yale University Art Gallery earlier this year. While I was there, I signed up for the gallery’s free membership. As part of that excellent program, the museum sometimes sends me newsletters and other stuff. I recently received a large poster featuring this statue. it was part of a request for a donation, and it totally worked. I hung the poster in my office, so I now spend a fair amount of time looking at it. And I’ve found a lot to enjoy.

Art That Inspires Me: Buddhist Deity Indra Yale University Art Gallery
Buddhist Deity Indra (Taishakuten). Japanese, 10th century CE. Single block of torreya wood with traces of gesso and pigment. Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT. Photo by Yale University Art Gallery.

For starters, I really like the statue’s calm and serene face, which befits the Buddhist deity it depicts. The eyes are almost closed, but not quite, and the mouth has a very peaceful expression. The facial features are full and curving, especially the strongly arched eyebrows, full cheeks, and massive earlobes. The rest of the body also has curves, and you don’t see that in many other styles of art. You definitely get the sense of this being a real body that takes up real space. But while the body is naturalistic in this way, the clothing is much more stylized. I find my eyes particularly drawn to the rigid folds of his tunic and his flared sleeves, all of which seem solid enough to stand up on their own. I think that this statue’s contrasts – the soft modelling of face and body versus the severe folds and the peaceful expression versus the active posture – are what make it compelling.

Art That Inspires Me Buddhist Deity Indra poster
My poster from Yale University Art Gallery.

According to the museum’s online entry for this work, the statue comes from tenth-century Japan and is made almost entirely of a single piece of wood. It represents a Vedic deity who became a Buddhist deity. “Vedic” refers to the Vedas, which are ancient Indian religious texts. They formed an early basis for Hinduism, which in turn influenced the development of Buddhism in India. I definitely see the Indian stylistic influence in this work. The website also says that the sculpture was originally covered in painted enamel. Color probably gave it a very different effect, just as was the case with ancient Greek sculptures that were originally painted. I am pretty sure I saw this work in person when I visited Yale earlier this year. To be honest, though, I don’t remember it making a strong impression at the time. It’s funny how things like that can change. 

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2 thoughts on “Art That Inspires Me: Japanese Buddhist Deity

  1. Any American interested in seeing an extraordinary collection of Japanese art should head to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts which has a collection of Japanese art that is the envy of most Japanese museums. How this came to be is a strange tale. When the Meiji Restoration came to power in 1865, casting aside the Edo period, it outlawed Buddhism and sought to destroy all art evocative of that religion which it regarded as a foreign import. Many statues of Buddha and other works of art were destroyed. Untouched by the decree were foreigners living in Japan. One New Englander living in Japan and well integrated into the society found that many Buddhists made gifts of their religious art to him and encouraged him to sent them abroad where they would be safe from the iconoclasts. They were sent to Boston and formed the basis for the core of the great collection of Japanese art in the MFA.

    I originally learned this from a Japanese Buddhist friend who told me that because of the role the MFA played in protecting the Buddhist art of Japan from destruction there is no animosity among Japanese Buddhists that the MFA holds this great treasure.

    When we hear these tales of iconoclastic movements we westerners should not look down our noses at other societies. We too had our periods of foolishness that involved us in destruction of works of art. Many European churches had their stained glass windows and statues smashed by some of our ancestors who thought they were doing the work of God in preventing their fellow citizens from worshiping false idols.

    1. I haven’t been to the MFA in a while. That’s a really great story about the collections. I definitely wouldn’t look down my nose at eastern cultures that have practiced iconoclasm. Far from it, since it’s pretty common all over the world. I would typically think of it involving “religions of the book” like Christianity and Islam, but I guess that’s not always the case. Thanks for sharing.

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