Vairocana Buddha (Japanese, Dainichi Nyorai)Artist(s)JapaneseArtist NationalityJapanese (culture or style)Object Creation Date17th centuryMedium & Supportcypress wood with gesso, lacquer, polychrome, and gildingDimensions
51 3/16 in. x 28 3/4 in. x 22 7/16 in. ( 130 cm x 73 cm x 57 cm )Credit LineMuseum purchase made possible by the Margaret Watson Parker Art Collection FundLabel copy
For a religion that many scholars would argue is atheistic, one of the enduring paradoxes of Buddhism is the central importance of icons in its practice and spread across Asia. Westerns are most familiar with Buddha images from the earlier, conservative tradition in which the figure is shown in the guise of a monk, with a shaved head, bare feet, wearing a simple garment, and in the act of meditating or teaching. Such icons have their ultimate source in the appearance of the historical Buddha (the “Awakened One”) Shakyamuni as a monk. By contrast, this image presents us with a handsome, crowned and bejeweled youth, with long locks piled high on his head and wearing a dhoti, in the manner of an Indian prince. This formula, which draws for visual inspiration on the tradition that Shakyamuni was a prince before abandoning his secular life, evokes a cosmic concept of Buddhahood, beyond temporal and spatial boundaries. This particular image is identified as Vairocana (“Great Radiance” by his 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).
Buddhist imagery of this sort, in which elements of costume and gesture assume multiple layers of iconographical burdens, emerged in the late seventh and eighth centuries in India as a response to the growing popularity of Hinduism. While the underlying teaching became ever more abstruse, the very resplendence of the more “god-like” images appealed to great emperors and petty princes alike. From Tibet to Indonesia to China and Japan, Vairocana images dominated the great royal Buddhist temples of eighth century. Although his popularity waned afterwards, Vairocana continued to be the most important deity in the esoteric Buddhist sects of Tibet and Japan.
This particular icon of Vairocana was made in Japan, probably in the late seventeenth or early eighteenth centuries, in a style that consciously looks back to the work of the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries in its union of meditative calm and bristling energy. The image 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 swastika patterns, and then an elaborate double-lotus throne. The image of Vairocana and his mandorla fit in to specially designed sockets in the base, so apparently all of the parts belong to the same set, which is rare. Although we do not know to what temple this sculpture belonged, it was probably designed as the principal icon in a Shingon sect pagoda. This image is the first esoteric Buddhist sculpture in the Museum’s collection, and greatly enhances our ability to represent Asian religious traditions.
Maribeth Graybill, Senior Curator of Asian Art
This radiant, crowned, bejeweled, and youthful Buddha, with long locks piled high on his head and wearing a loincloth-like dhoti, evokes the appearance and manner of an Indian prince rather than a simple monk. Representations of Buddha as a prince come out of a tradition that stressed the royal origins of the historical Buddha Shakyamuni, before he abandoned secular life. The imagery of a more “godlike” Buddha emerged in the late seventh to early eighth century in India as a response to the growing popularity of Hinduism. Not surprisingly, these resplendent images appealed to great emperors and petty princes alike and, from Tibet to Indonesia to China and Japan, they dominated the great royal Buddhist temples of the eighth century.
This particular image is identified as Vairocana (Great Radiance) by his 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 the mind. It was made in Japan, probably in the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century, in a style that consciously looks back to the work of the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. The image 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 a dazzling gold, but it has taken on a beautiful patina as the gilding has worn away.
(Label for UMMA Japanese Gallery Opening Rotation, March 2009)Subject matter
This particular image is identified as Vairocana Buddha (“Great Radiance” by his 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). The elegant facial expression, bejeweled crown shows Buddha as a prince.Physical Description
A figure is sitting on a lotus-shaped pedestal, which is itself placed on an hexagonal pedestal. The figure wears a drape hanging from the left shoulder and covering the bottom. The arms are placed in front; right hand holding the left index finger. The facial expression is calm; the two eyes looking down; a dot on the forehead. Two elongated ears. A tall crown on the head. The two halos are on the back of the figure; one behind the head and other behind the torso. Two halos are surrounded by an oval-shaped dais. The statue and pedestals are guilded with gold; some polychrome remnants.Primary Object Classification Sculpture Primary Object TypefigureAdditional Object Classification(s)Ritual ObjectCollection AreaAsianRights
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Buddhas (visual works)