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Sacred Symbolism

Even religious artworks designed to represent the eternal will fall victim to time. But gold can transform an otherwise time-bound object into one that symbolically creates eternal effects. 
Svayambhu Stupa
Svayambhu Stupa, 1700–1800. Nepal. Gilded copper. Asian Art Museum, The Avery Brundage Collection, B60B212. Photograph © Asian Art Museum.
As such, gold often appears on paintings and sculptures intended for the temple, monastery or even private devotions — in other words, those places where time meets eternity.  

In many Buddhist cultures, aging artworks may be revitalized through the ritual application of gold. The Svayambhu Stupa on display in this exhibition is a model of an actual monument in Nepal that is ritually renovated by the application of gold at regular intervals. Similarly, a large Mongolian Maitreya sculpture reveals how gold was used to ritually enliven this image of the Buddha of the Future. A smaller lapis Buddha from China bears traces of gold leaf. In all of these cases, the application of gold infuses the artwork with the symbolism of gold: luminosity and eternity.

Table screen depicting the Taoist deity Doumu and her entourage
Table screen depicting the Taoist deity Doumu and her entourage, approx. 1500–1700. China. Gilded bronze. Asian Art Museum, Gift of Frances Campbell and the Society for Asian Art, 1991.83. Photograph © Asian Art Museum.