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Vairocana Buddha


Japanese
Vairocana Buddha (J. Dainichi Nyorai)
17th-18th century
Cedar wood with gesso, lacquer, polychrome, and gilding
Museum purchase made possible by the Margaret Watson Parker Art Collection Fund, 2003/2.59

This is the first major sculpture in the Museum’s collection to represent the esoteric Buddhist tradition, which played a prominent role in Asia from Tibet to Japan. Vairocana (“Great Radiance”) Buddha is a product of late developments in the Buddhist tradition. This is an abstract, cosmic concept of buddhahood, beyond temporal and spatial boundaries, not the historical founder of the religion. Buddha appears therefore in the garb of a royal prince with long hair piled high on his head, as well as crowned and bejeweled, rather than as a monk with a shaved head. He is recognized by his signature gesture of clasping his left forefinger with his right hand, symbolizing the philosophical notion of “the union of six elements”—earth, air, fire, water, and wood, all subsumed into mind.

This particular icon of Vairocana was made in Japan, probably in the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century, as the central icon in a Shingon Buddhist pagoda. The sculptor worked in a style that consciously looks back to models of the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries in its union of meditative calm and bristling energy but adds to these a rococo-like richness of surface carving, especially in the dais.

The figure and its halo and dais are all carved from wood that was hollowed out, coated with gesso, and then lacquered and gilded. When new, the ensemble would have been dazzlingly gold, but today it has taken on a beautiful patina, as the gilding has worn away. The dais is made of four stacked units, with a dragon prowling through stylized clouds at the base, surmounted by a hexagonal banister carved with Buddhist hooked cross patterns, and then an elaborate double-lotus throne. The Buddha figure and his mandorla, or body halo, fit into specially designed sockets in the base, so apparently all of the parts belong to the same set, which is quite rare and makes this UMMA acquisition especially rewarding.