Nara, three treasures of Japanese Buddhism

Wednesday 6 February 2019: Nara, three treasures of Japanese Buddhism, visit-conference by Sylvie Ahmadian, lecturer at the National Museum of Asian Arts - Guimet.

An exceptional loan was granted by the Nara Prefecture to the Guimet National Museum of Asian Arts, as part of the Japonisms 2018. For the first time loaned out of Japan are presented in France two guards, national treasures. The Kohfuku-ji temple also lends a wooden statue of Bodhisattva Kshitigarbha (Jizō Bosatsu in Japanese), "important cultural property".

According to tradition, the ruler of Baekje (Korea) sent, in 538, an embassy which presented to Emperor Kimmei a statuette depicting Buddha Sakyamuni and a letter strongly recommending the "Buddha's Law". The diffusion of this new religion will be done, at first, by the intermediary of the aristocracy. By embracing Buddhism, it is the entire Sino-Korean culture that will be introduced to Japan through the new religion that reaches Japan in the evolved form of mahâyâna, with a precisely constituted pantheon. The Japanese archipelago receives, at the same time, doctrinal texts and carved images of the Buddha.
It was during the Asuka period (538-645) that the first Japanese sculptures were made, at the end of the 6rd century, in contact with works and artists from Korea. Also, some gilded bronze sculptures of this period are probably made in Korea, like most of the 48 statues of Hōryū-ji, the oldest surviving Japanese temple (607). In the following decades, Japanese sculptors created works inspired by the Buddhist statues of the Wei Dynasty and Longmen Grottoes, as evidenced by the triad of Shaka, the famous sculptor Tori, made in bronze, dated 623 , and preserved in the Kondō of Hōryū-ji of Nara. This work, however, favors a strict symmetry and an accentuated and linear representation of folds drapes, which contributes to a more "abstract" expression and announces a more properly Japanese orientation.
The first sculptors' studios set up shop in Yamato, in the Nara prefecture, and will continue there for centuries.
During the Hakuhō era (645-710), contacts with Tang China intensified and the sending of Japanese embassies to the Chinese court strengthened the importation of new techniques and techniques into the Japanese archipelago. new styles that will influence Japanese artistic productions with more flexible lines, rounded shapes and realistic faces.

Triad Shaka. 623. Bronze. Kondō of Hōryū-ji. Nara.

Ashura. Middle of 8e s. Painted dry lacquer. Kohfuku-ji. Nara.

Gakko Bosatsu. Middle of 8e s. Dry clay painted. Hokkedo, Todai-ji. Nara.

Jizō Bosatsu. End of 9e s. Painted elm wood. Kohfuku-ji. Nara.

With the advent of the Nara era (710-794), the capital was transferred to Heijōkyō, present-day Nara, and Buddhism became the state religion. Japanese sculpture reflects the Tang style which has reached maturity and is imbued with naturalism. Also, while the sculptures of previous eras were mainly in metal, two more malleable mediums are then favored: dry lacquer and clay. Two works from the Nara era are representative of these techniques: Ashura with six arms and three heads, belonging to all the Beings of Eight Categories which protect the Buddhist Law, is a masterpiece of lacquered hemp statuary from Kohfuku-ji; Gakko Bosatsu, the boddhisattva of the moon, made of dried earth on a frame of wood and cob before being painted, offers a rendering of detail and a search for realism particularly visible in the treatment of clothing. The dry lacquer technique consists of covering a clay model with several successive layers of hemp soaked in lacquer, then making an opening in the back of the statue to remove the clay core. A light wooden frame is then inserted into the cavity to avoid the deformation of the sculpture which turns out to be extraordinarily light, while the details are modeled using a mixture of lacquer and sawdust. These refined works are imbued with an unprecedented naturalism and expressiveness.
The Heian period (794-1185) saw the transfer of the capital to Heian-kyō, future Kyōto, which would remain the seat of the imperial court until 1868. After several centuries of Chinese influences and the interruption of relations diplomatic with China in 894, the Fujiwara period (894-1185) allowed the development of a typically Japanese and original artistic style. From the start of the 9rd century, wood is the material of choice for Japanese sculptors who produce works according to the Ichiboku zukuri (in a single tree trunk), the wood being partially hollowed out to lighten the weight and prevent cracks. But, from the first half of 11e s., the statues are made from several pieces of wood carved separately then assembled.
The Jizō Bosatsu of the exhibition, dated from the end of 9e century and measuring 139,7 cm high, was carried out according to the first method. The bodhisattva savior of the world of darkness, is standing up like a monk with a shaven head and wearing a kesa (monastic dress made of pieces of assembled fabrics). Unlike traditional iconography, it is free of the jewel cintamani and a staff with rings called kikara (shakujo in Japanese). His hands, which perform the gesture of the discussion, have been carried out in a wood different from the block of keyaki (elm) in which the statue was carved, including the pedestal. Gold powder dissolved in glue (according to the technique kindeisai) covers the flesh to give them softness and brightness. If Jizō Bosatsu's sculpture is dated from the end of 9rd century, the ornamentation of the drape - covered with flowers, arabesques and swastika - would have been applied to the 13e century, at the time of the restoration of the two other sculptures of Kongo Rikishi, as well as the halo, placed at the same time at the back of the head of the bodhisattva, and composed of a lotus flower from which emanate 26 rays suggesting radiating light.
Some patterns are realized thanks to the technique of superposition of colors Moriage saishiki  to produce a relief effect, and kirikane or cut metal sheets. This remarkable sculpture, with ample volumes, soft and rounded forms, with concentrated and serene expression, testifies to the high technical level achieved by the Japanese sculptors at the end of the 9rd century.

Jizō Bosatsu. Detail. End of 9e s. Painted elm wood. Kohfuku-ji. Nara.

Jizō Bosatsu. Detail. End of 9e s. Painted elm wood. Kohfuku-ji. Nara.

Jizō Bosatsu. Profile view. End of 9e s. Painted elm wood. Kohfuku-ji. Nara.

Jizō Bosatsu. Detail of the garment. End of 9e s. Painted elm wood. Kohfuku-ji. Nara.

The time of Kamakura (1185-1333) sees the establishment of a military government, the bakufu, whose capital is located in Kamakura, in Tokyo Bay. A new orientation is given to Buddhist statuary, which is experiencing a renaissance based on new stylistic criteria. The sculpture of this period is used to represent beings with vigor and naturalism, in an almost "expressionist" style to express, in a powerful way, their deepest reality. It is dominated by the Kei School whose most famous sculptors, Kōkei, Unkei (1150-1223) and Kaikei (active 1183 1223) have worked to restore the Buddhist temples of Nara such as Khofuku-ji and Tōdai-ji, burned in 1180 by the Taira clan.
The Kei school, in the Nara region, brings out a style of acute realism and very expressive. Unkei and Kaikei are the two most representative sculptors, with a very different realistic style, virile and powerful for the first, graceful and elegant for the second. This quest for realism of the Kei school is used in the commissioning and restorations of the Kohfuku-ji temple of the Hossō-shū current.
Indeed, Kohfuku-ji is the main temple of the Hossō-shū Buddhist sect, inspired by the Chinese school Weishizong "pure consciousness", known as Faxiang, introduced in Japan at the end of 7rd or at the beginning of 8rd century. The Hōsso School is based on the doctrine of pure consciousness, the deepest stratum of consciousness that holds the possibility of becoming a Buddha. It aims to perceive the true nature of things whose discovery leads to enlightenment.
The two sculptures of the time of Kamakura, 13rd century, exhibited at the Guimet Museum, represent Kongō Rikishi or guards (Vajrapāņi) who usually stand on either side of the door of a temple. These protective deities of the Buddhist world, each holding a Kongōsho (vajra) or weapon of destruction, are supposed to ward off evil spirits and enjoin those who enter the temple to follow the Buddha's Law. If they are from India where they are called yaksa, it is in their sinister form that they were introduced to Japan during the time of Nara.

Kongō Rikishi. Ungyo. Japanese cypress wood painted. Kohfuku-ji. Nara.

Kongō Rikishi. Ungyo. Detail. Japanese cypress wood painted. Kohfuku-ji. Nara.

Kongō Rikishi. Agyō. Japanese cypress wood painted. Kohfuku-ji. Nara.

Kongō Rikishi. Agyō. Back view. Japanese cypress wood painted. Kohfuku-ji. Nara.

The two statues on display, usually kept in the Saikondō temple, within the grounds of Kohfuku-ji, represent the guardian deities Agyō (open mouth) and Ungyō (closed mouth). Imposing in size (154 cm) but human, with a powerful musculature, They are threatening and dynamic, in the vein of the guardian kings made in 1203 by Unkei and Kaikei for the Tōdai-ji temple of Nara. They impress with their spectacular posture which, with the drapes, gives the illusion of movement; their anatomical truth, with tense muscles and swollen veins, expresses their power and the tension generated by the anger that seems to inhabit them. The author, whose identity we do not know but probably Unkei or an artist around him, has succeeded in infusing these guardian deities with an unprecedented carnal presence and spiritual density.
From the technical point of view, they were executed according to the method of Yosegi zukuri, which consists of carving separately various pieces of wood - in this case here the hinoki or Japanese cypress - then put them together. The two wooden elements superimposed at the level of the belly allow to obtain the desired angle between the top and the bottom of the torso to intensify the impression of movement. Once sculpted, the statues were covered with hemp canvas to which white clay was applied, then serving as a support for the painting. The rock crystal eyes bring a sparkle and remarkable intensity to the gaze of these formidable guardians, who, originally arranged symmetrically in the Saikondo hall of the Khofuku-ji temple, were intended to protect the other statues of the temple. The stylistic research of Unkei and his entourage exercised, until the end of the 14rd s., a profound influence on the development of Buddhist statuary, which will never reach this degree of expressiveness. As Hélène Bayou, curator of the exhibition, points outNara, Buddhist treasures of ancient Japan. The Kofukuji Temple ", presented at the Grand Palais in Paris in 1996, the perfect match between a religious thought and its iconic incarnation will remain unmatched.


Enter a text and press Enter to search