By Donna Strahan and Denise Patry Leidy

Sculptures made with lacquer flourished throughout East Asia between the sixth and the eighth centuries. In this technique, hemp coated with lacquer and strengthening additives such as animal bone, blood, and other substances is placed over a wood or clay core. The latter type is removed once it cures. The sculpture then is embellished with details made of lacquer and putty, and gilded and painted. Sculptures made using this technique, many of which may originally have been parts of sets, are rare and presumably were commissioned by rulers, gentry, and high-ranking clerics.

The addition of lacquer, a longstanding artistic material in China, to the production of Buddhist imagery parallels the fascinating development of Buddhism in China from the sixth to the eighth century. This was a seminal period for the development of distinctively East Asian practice traditions and imagery. The rise of portraiture, while linked to the development of Sinitic practice lineages, also echoes the contemporaneous fascination with self-mummification, a process in which the corpses of spiritually advanced adherents, which preserve their charisma and knowledge, do not decay. The use of lacquer to coat and preserve such corpses, which is first recorded in the seventh century, parallels the flourishing of lacquer as a sculptural medium at that time, as represented by the three lacquer buddhas that are the subject of this study. Further evidence of the ties between the use of lacquer to make sculptures and the use of lacquer to coat mummies was discovered at the Drents Museum in the Netherlands in 1996, when the corpse of the monk Liuquan was discovered inside a lacquer portrait sculpture. Both the corpse and the sculpture preserve Liuquan’s advancement and wisdom: they serve as both relic and reliquary.

This is particularly interesting with regards to the Metropolitan and Freer buddhas. They were made using the hollow-core technique, which, as has been pointed out, creates a sculpture that is essentially a hollow shell. While portability and, presumably, a desire for an exclusive type of icon may have spurred the flourishing of Buddhist sculpture in lacquer, the creation of a sculpture that is completely hollow is suggestive. At least one hollow-core example, the buddha in the collection in Pennsylvania, is known to have contained ashes. Parallels between the bag of ashes in this sculpture and that found in the clay sculpture of the monk Hong Bian at Dunhuang suggest that the ashes in the buddha in Pennsylvania were also those of a cleric or advanced practitioner. Moreover, the appearance of the enigmatic terms “man inside buddha” and “man inside sculpture” in the sixth century suggest that at least some of the iconic representations of buddhas (but not other deities) produced at this time may have included physical remains such as ashes. Many types of objects were placed inside the sculptures of buddhas to consecrate them. The addition of such consecratory material created living icons that echoed the spiritual charisma of the Historical Buddha and other adepts. Unfortunately, with rare exceptions, such consecratory materials are lost over time, and it is impossible to reconstruct what types of objects any given sculpture may have held.


We are grateful to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Walters Art Museum, and the Freer Gallery of Art for allowing us to study their sculptures.

The help of many colleagues was instrumental in completing this research. We would like to specifically thank the following:

Getty Conservation Institute
Julie Chang
Michael Schilling

Johns Hopkins University, Heritage Science for Conservation Program
Molly McGath

Metropolitan Museum of Art
Federico Carò
Christina Hagelskamp
Daniel Hausdorf
Mike Hearn
Vicky Parry

Smithsonian Institution
Brian Abrams
Matthew Clark
Timothy Cleland
Tim Kirk
Christina Popenfus
Julian Raby
Timothy Rose
Alison Schorr
Sabrina Sholts
Sarah Stauderman
Jan Stuart
Carolyn Thome
Keats Webb

Walters Art Museum
Glenn Gates
Amy Landau
Julie Lauffenburger


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