The Curious Curator
Every work of art has a past, present and future, we just have to do a little digging to find out what an artwork is trying to tell us. Join our curator of Asian art as she unravels a mystery and reveals the identity of the two Buddhas depicted in the ornate temple wall murals in the Chinese gallery.
This video is divided into two parts. Part 1 focuses on the bottom portion of the murals and Part 2 focuses on the top portion of the murals.
The Curious Curator with Dr. Katherine Anne Paul, Curator of Asian Art
Transcript of Part 1
Welcome to paradise! These gilded and colorful larger-than-life Buddhist murals were intended to inspire awe and remind viewers of a future time when humanity will be surrounded by wish-granting trees, prosperity, good fortune and harmony.
These two panels were originally part of a single central wall in a Chinese Buddhist temple dating to approximately 1450. The wall was painted on both sides, but the paintings on the rear sadly were damaged in a fire making it difficult to see what remains.
The rich colors of these paintings are a result of pigments ground from precious and semi-precious stones that will never lose their color. Additionally, like icing a cake, some of the details of the painting are piped with raised lines that are gilded to provide a golden three-dimensional character to the paintings.
In China, more than one Buddha is venerated. Unlocking the mystery of which Buddhas are depicted here and what Buddha is missing from the center all can be determined by the surrounding clues of identifying their attendants. Like any great detective story, close looking provides profound answers.
The paintings are divided into different sections of space. The lowest section provides immediate visual cues that the space is a miraculous environment.
The very ground has a scattering of riches. Wish-granting jewels represent the teachings of Buddhism. Gold and/or silver ingots are a certain prescribed metal weight and are the historic equivalent of a suitcase filled with paper money. Red coral branches were considered more valuable than rubies. Crossed elephant tusks signify not only the luxury material of ivory but also military strength. Rhinoceros horn, valued in China as both a medicine and male aphrodisiac, and ruyi wish-granting mushrooms are strewn around the grassy ground.
On the outer sides of these panels are two parasol bearers each facing inwards to the center. Like banners at the head of a parade, parasols appear in Chinese art to signal to the viewers that something special is happening nearby. The left parasol bearer wears a green outer-robe and red under-robe and wears lots of jewelry around the head and neck. The right parasol bearer wears a red robe with white trousers and a short white cape. Both parasols appear to be fluttering in a breeze that flows to the outer edges of the paintings, blown back by the power of the Buddhas in the center. Each parasol-bearer gazes into the eyes of a figure whose body is turned towards the center, but whose head has twisted back as if in response.
The martial figure on the left has a thin beard and moustache and wears an elaborate hat wrapped with a red ribbon, along with woven armor over a long red-and-green robe with high boots over white trousers. He raises his left hand in a gesture signifying protection and his lowered right hand holds a short triangular spear with a red shaft. His Sassanian-style clothing suggests (in a Chinese context) that he is from central Asia, he is Guan Yu (关羽) god of wealth and protection.
At right, wearing a golden crown that does not contain fully his dark, curly hair is a dark skinned figure with a bushy beard and moustache. He holds in his left hand an elaborate sword distinctive to an East Asia context called a vajra-khadga in Sanskrit (金刚剑) in Chinese. He has a bare chest but wears a white cape covered with colorful jewel patterns. The same patterned fabric as the cape also serves as a hip-wrapper over his long red robe. He wears golden armlets, bracelets and ankles and has bare feet. His clothing, jewelry, hair and skin tone suggest (in a Chinese context) he hails from South Asia and is the god Indra (釋提桓因) who attends on the historical Buddha Shakyamuni.
Animals wearing golden ornaments are rendered in relaxed postures in this grove among the figures. On the right panel these animals include both a nanny and a billy goat, an ox or water-buffalo, and two yellow lions. On the left panel, look for a dark-green-and-pink lion, and deer—both a buck and a doe. The peaceful co-existence of these animals–not acting as if some are predators and others are prey–also signals this place is a paradise.
In the foreground each panel are trees decorated with red bows, bejeweled garlands and wish-granting gems nestled among its leaves. This adornment signifies these are wish-granting trees. Pink, blue, white and yellow clouds surround each tree further emphasizing the miraculous location of this land.
In the middle of the painting, cinnabar red railings and green walls edged in gold and blue separate the upper and lower portions of the painting. These same types of decorative dividing panels exist in three-dimensions in Chinese Buddhist temples historically and currently. See, the wall posts are topped with golden finials decorated with raised piping.
White, long-tailed birds and green long-tailed birds are perched on the outer and inner gold finials respectively. In Chinese Buddhism, birds like these take on special meaning representing filial devotion—loyalty of children to their parents.
Above the walls, the floor is defined by dark tiles set in a diamond pattern, the types of floors one still finds in Chinese architecture today.