Brahma and Indra, or Bonten and Taishakuten as they are known in Japanese, were Hindu deities brought into Buddhism as attendants of the Buddha or of bodhisattvas.
These two sculptures were created for Kofukuji, one of the most important temples in Nara, where the capital of Japan was located in the 700s.
Standing Brahma (Bonten) (detail). Japan, Nara period (710–794). One of a pair; hollow dry lacquer. The Avery Brundage Collection, B65S13.
A Rare Technique
This pair is important for many reasons, one being that the sculptures were made using the hollow dry lacquer technique, an ancient method that produced lightweight, portable statues. It was only used in Japan for about 100 years.
The technique begins with a clay core. Since these figures are almost life-sized, the core would have been built on wooden scaffolding. Once the clay core is built, layers of textile are dipped in Asian lacquer, called urushi
, and applied to the figure in layers.
Standing Indra (Taishakuten), one of a pair, Nara period (710–794). Japan. Hollow dry lacquer. The Avery Brundage Collection, B65S12.
Once the lacquered textile is dry, the figure is cut open, usually at the back, and the clay core is scraped out. The original wooden support is also removed and a new one is added to the interior for reinforcement. The panel that was cut away is replaced, and finishing layers are applied to the now hollow figure. Once dried, it can be painted and gilded as desired.
A Historical Mystery
The Asian Art Museum’s Bonten and Taishakuten are the only large-scale, matched Japanese hollow dry lacquer sculptures from the Nara period in a U.S. collection. Even in Japan, sculptures like these are extremely rare and most have been designated as National Treasures or Important
Statues from Kofukuji, including the Bonten and Taishakuten figures now in the museum
These statues were among a number of items sold from Kofukuji in 1906. Photographs of the temple’s contents were taken at that time and these figures can be seen in one of the photographs. However, in the photograph the figures are missing their hands and feet, and there is damage to one head, and the other head is missing . By the time the museum’s founding collector, Avery Brundage, purchased them in the early 1960s, the figures were complete. So the question ever since then has been: how much of each of these figures is restoration, and how much is original?
Many historians believed that the restored parts were 20th-century replacements, making the statues less important. But research conducted in 2012 by a team of Japanese scholars and the Asian Art Museum indicates that many of those parts are original.
X-rays taken of the statues revealed a wooden framework inside the statues, as well as both ancient and modern nails used in the construction and repair of the figures.
There are also places where pieces have been attached with wires. Some of these are repairs; they occur where there are cracks or other damage. These wired repairs indicate where original parts of the statues have been reattached. For example, there’s a concentration of wire in Taishakuten’s head, which is missing completely in the 1906 photograph.