The Buddha Amitabha with the eight great bodhisattvas

Here Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light, is surrounded by the Eight Great Bodhisattvas. Amitabha is one of the most compassionate figures in the Buddhist pantheon and a central figure of Pure Land Buddhism, which proliferated in East Asia, including Vietnam, China, Korea, and Japan. Amitabha promised all believers rebirth in the Pure Land, where souls are reborn rid of all impurities.

The accompanying eight bodhisattvas are (on the right, from bottom to top) Avalokiteshvara, Manjushri, Maitreya, and Vajrapani, and (on the left, from bottom to top) Mahasthamaprapta, Samantabhadra, Kshitigarbha, and Sarvanivarana Vishkambhin. The link between Amitabha and the eight bodhisattvas is mentioned in a Korean version of the Eight Great Bodhisattvas Mandala Sutra, in the “Practices” chapter. Many scholars believe that the pairing of Amitabha with these eight bodhisattvas is unique to Korea.

Typical of late Goryeo Buddhist paintings, the figures in this painting are adorned with sumptuous garments decorated with delicate gold patterns, translucent nimbuses, and gilded skin tones. The luxurious aesthetics evident in this painting were prevalent during the Goryeo dynasty.

The Hindu deities Shiva and Parvati combined as Ardhanarishvara

Indian artists and philosophers sometimes sought ways to show the combination—the reintegration—of opposites like male and female. Here, Shiva and his wife are shown combined in a single figure divided vertically. The headdress has contrasting halves, the figure has one male breast and one female one, and at the figure’s feet are two different animal mounts, Shiva’s bull (with its head broken off) and Parvati’s lion.

A seated woman symbolizing a musical mode (Vihag Ragaputra)

This painting represents a musical mode (raga). The sets to which such works belonged were known as “ragamalas” (garlands of musical modes). In them, various modes of classical Indian music were idealized as human figures engaged in activities or placed in settings that evoked the specific emotions, moods, and times of day associated with the raga. In the various classification systems used in South Asia, major musical modes were personified as men or gods, while other modes were personified as their wives, sons, and, infrequently, daughters.

An inscription above the painting identifies this musical mode as Vihag Ragaputra (son of a male raga). In some instances such as this one, male musical modes were visualized as women. This seated woman does not correspond to other known images of Vihag, which typically depict the musical mode as a man and in different settings. The nighttime Vihag raga is here depicted at night, as indicated by the silver moon and the resting birds. The tiger skin upon which the woman sits is usually associated with ascetics. Her jewelry may indicate her transformation, due to heartache, from a beautiful young woman into an ascetic figure. The difficulty in determining her exact identity indicates both the lack of a clearly defined system for illustrating ragamala texts in South Asia and the existence of many regional variations.

Bird with long tail feathers

Artists of the Kano school drew inspiration for subjects like this one from imported Chinese paintings. Perched atop a gnarled camellia tree branch, a long-tailed bird turns to look up to its right. This domesticated songbird, a kind of magpie, is called “ribbons” in Chinese, a reference to tail feathers that resemble the silk ribbons of official seals or medals in China. In contrast to the branch, which is rendered in ink with minute dots suggesting lichen, the bird and flowers are painted with rich mineral colors and a profusion of detail. Artists working for China’s imperial court used this style to mimic the forms of nature in as realistic a manner as possible: here, a sense of the bird’s sleek, plump form; the leaves’ smooth, curving shape; and the flowers’ rippled petals and stiff, upright stamen.

Quran manuscript

The Quran first began to be revealed through the angel Jibril (Gabriel) to Prophet Muhammad during one of his meditative retreats inside the Cave of Hira near Mecca. Prophet Muhammad memorized these words and passed them on orally. Following his death in 632, the revelations continued to be preserved orally until a couple of decades later, when they were compiled to form the Holy Quran, the most revered text of the Muslim faith. The Quran is believed to be miraculous and is characterized by the principle of inimitability; that is, no human can match its language and beauty. The Quran contains 114 chapters, which, except for the opening chapter, are organized according to length from the longest to the shortest.

The Quran (in Arabic, “recitation”) is read and recited by Muslims as part of devotional practice. Since the Quran was revealed to Prophet Muhammad in Arabic, it is highly encouraged to read and recite the Quran in its orginal language. Thus, the Arabic script (read from right to left) can be seen in places as diverse as North Africa, Spain, and China.Religious devotion is expressed also in copying the Quran, and manuscripts are prepared with great attention to accuracy They are often elaborately decorated with illuminated opening pages and chapter headings, and the text is written in fine calligraphy.

Daoist ceremonial robe

Robes like this were worn by Daoist priests during rituals and ceremonies. Daoism developed in China more than 2,000 years ago as a religion that places humans in both natural and divine worlds.

The back of the robe, shown here, is embroidered with cosmic diagrams. The large disk (center) depicts a palace surrounded by the lunar houses of Chinese astronomy. Above this, three disks represent heavens. To the left of these disks is the sun with a three-legged bird, and to the right is the moon, with a hare making the elixir of immortality. Below the central disk are symbols of the five sacred peaks of China. The remainder of the surface of this robe is decorated with white cranes and phoenixes with long tails, both of which served as mounts for Daoist deities. The lingzhi fungus of immortality and cloud formations enclose the symbolic implements of the Eight Daoist Immortals—fan, sword and flywhisk, crutch, basket, flute, lotus, fish drum, and a pair of boards for keeping time. Among the waves at the bottom are sacred animals, including deer, crane, tortoise, snake (the ancient guardian deity of the north), monster fish, and dragons. Floating on the waves are some of the Eight Precious Jewels.

The Hindu deity Vishnu

This sculpture can be identified as Vishnu by the now-broken club beneath the lower left arm. In India, stone images of deities are usually not carved in the round, but are left attached, or partly attached, to backslabs. In ancient Southeast Asia, on the other hand, stone images, like this Vishnu, are often carved on all sides and stand free of a backslab. Such a large, imposing, and carefully finished image would probably have been commissioned by the court for a royal temple. Its style is slightly old-fashioned for its period—the technical term is “archaizing.” Royally sponsored sculptures of the Angkor kingdom were often a bit conservative in style.

A hundred years ago the development and dating of ancient Cambodian sculpture was not at all well understood. Few works had inscribed dates or could be firmly associated with the dates of historical events. Over many decades, French scholars studied the smallest details of crowns, garments, and other features of sculptures and eventually succeeded in working out how such details evolved from one period to the next. As a result, it is now usually possible to determine the period of a particular sculpture with some confidence, although the preference of some ancient patrons for new sculptures in old-fashioned styles sometimes clouds the picture. The vast numbers of forgeries of ancient Cambodian stone sculpture that have been created in the last hundred years also cause confusion.

Standing crowned Buddha with four scenes of his life

Eastern Indian Buddhist sculptures often show a main Buddha image surrounded by four or seven smaller Buddha images representing standard scenes from the Buddha’s life. Shown here are: (lower left) the Buddha’s descent from Indra’s heaven after the Buddha had preached to his deceased mother; (upper left) the Buddha’s victory over the demon Mara; (upper right) the Buddha accepting an offering from a monkey; and (lower right) the Buddha taming an enraged elephant.

Sculptures such as this were placed in niches in the exterior and interior walls of Buddhist temples. They were often donated to the temple by devotees. Here, the two small female figures on the base may represent the donors. These figures remind us of the importance of pious women in Buddhism, as does the small figure (above them and to the left) of a nun worshipping the Buddha.
The young prince who was to become the Buddha rejected the luxuries of royal life and embraced simplicity. Why then is he shown here wearing a crown and jewelry over his monk’s robes? According to scholars Susan and John Huntington, “The crown and jewelry emphasize the aspect of the Buddha as a universal sovereign, drawing a visual analogy between the attainment of buddhahood and coronation as a king. The royal adornments evoke the Buddha’s majesty, kingly qualities, and omniscience.”

Standing Indra (Taishakuten), one of a pair

Indra (shown here) and Brahma (B65S13)—also known as Taishakuten and Bonten—were Hindu gods who were incorporated into Buddhist mythology as attendants of the Buddha. They appeared as such in Japanese sculpture in the eighth century. This Taishakuten and Bonten were specifically created for Kofukuji, one of the most important temples in Nara, the ancient capital of the Nara period (710-794). It is said that they were treasured in the temple’s West Golden Hall. The statues escaped a few fires, including the one of 1180, which destroyed the Golden Hall. In 1906, when Kofukuji sought to raise funds for temple repairs by selling some of its treasures, Masuda Takashi (also known as Donno, 1848-1938), a famous industrialist and art collector, acquired the pair along with sixteen others in an effort to keep them in Japan. This Taishakuten and Bonten remained in the Masuda family until Avery Brundage acquired them in 1965.

The museum’s Taishakuten and Bonten are extremely rare and important because they are made for Kofukuji in the dry lacquer technique, an ancient method that produced lightweight, portable statues. This technique was used in Japan for only about 100 years. Even in Japan, such sculptures are rare, and most have been designated as National Treasures or Important Cultural Properties. The Asian Art Museum’s Taishakuten and Bonten constitute the only pair of full-scale hollow dry lacquer sculptures in the Western hemisphere today.