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Prince Shōtoku at Age Two

Prince Shōtoku at Age Two, Kamakura period, c. 1292, Japanese cypress, assembled woodblock construction with polychromy and rock-crystal inlaid eyes (Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum Speakers: Rachel Saunders, Ph.D., Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Associate Curator of Asian Art, Harvard Art Museums Angela Chang, Conservator of Objects and Sculpture, Assistant Director, Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, Harvard Art Museums Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(jazz piano music) - [Steven] We're in the Harvard Art Museums, looking at a small wooden Shotoku Taishi. And I'm very lucky to be looking at this with a curator and a conservator. - [Rachel] I'm Rachel Saunders, the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Associate Curator for Asian Art of the Harvard Art Museums. - [Angela] And I'm Angela Chang, Assistant Director for the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies. - [Steven] I may never have seen a sculpture that had this degree of presence, while also seeming quite solemn. - [Rachel] He's one of our most beloved objects within the Harvard Art Museums. The sculpture shows Prince Shotoku at age two, when he was supposed to have taken several steps forward, puts his hands together, and praises the Buddha, and in that moment, he manifests a relic. And this is of course a miraculous event. - [Steven] And the figure, it seems to be leaning forward ever so slightly. - [Rachel] He does have his left knee moving slightly ahead of his right, which gives you this suggestion of movement. On the right-hand side, there is a big swath of material that's moving as he is just about to take the step. Just this sense of that narrative moment is present in this still sculpture. He has a lot of features of a small child, he has a little bit of fat around the wrist and at the belly, the back of the neck. He has a very large head but he has this very serene expression and his eyes are somehow looking both down and out at something that's beyond our mundane vision. - [Rachel] There's a lot of debate about whether he actually existed as a historical person. Some scholars have argued that he was a construction. Others suggested that he was a historical person, that he died around 622 and he achieved a number of political objectives including establishing the country's first constitution and establishing Buddhism in Japan. - [Steven] And building a large number of temples, some of which survive today. - [Rachel] He is thought to have been the founder of Horyuji Temple and also Shitennoji Temple. - [Steven] One of the things that I find most compelling is the glint of the eye. - [Angela] The eyes are made out of rock crystal. The technique is called gyokugan. It involves taking two pieces of rock crystal, shaping and polishing them, inserting them from the inside of the head, back painting them to depict the pupils, and then adding a layer of paper and wedging it in place with wood and pins. - [Steven] The result is a figure that seems to have a kind of immediate presence. So this child of royal lineage has this extraordinary event early in his life and becomes a signifier for the establishment of Buddhism in Japan. - [Rachel] The relic that he is believed to have manifested between his hands in some version of the story is the left eyeball of the Buddha. So that means that the left eyeball of the Buddha has manifested in Japan which is very far from India which is the Buddhist homeland, and it's thanks to Shotoku that that's happened. - [Steven] But in this sculpture, instead of the Buddha's eyeball being placed between those palms, what we found is a small nut. - [Angela] Between his hands there's a compartment that still has the shell of the lotus seed. You can see that by close looking and we've also seen it through technical imaging. - [Steven] And it's a hint that this object is not simply a sculpture that's meant to be seen but an object that's meant to be used. Because it holds within it quite a secret. - [Rachel] When you just see it from the outside you don't think about the inside. But in fact, this sculpture contained within it dedicatory objects that were placed there by people who wanted to create a very personal connection with this child icon. - [Steven] And we believe that the sculpture was likely made for nuns in a nunnery. - [Rachel] There were also male members of this group who put together this sculpture but the majority appear to be nuns. Probably aristocratic nuns who were associated with a particular monk who was working to reform and revive Japanese Buddhism in the Kyoto, Nara areas of Western Japan in the late 13th century. - [Steven] So where has this sculpture would have been seen in a fairly public context, in a temple? It holds within it these deeply personal objects and is a real variety. - [Rachel] From miniature sculptures to text and written objects and a number of those include short vows written by people who were promising to follow the Buddhist rules for life. And they have dated those and written their names on them and placed them inside the sculptures so this is how we're able to date this to around 1292. Some of the objects appear to have been long used personal, devotional items. One is chapter 25 of The Lotus Sutra. Now this is a tiny booklet and it contains the chapter which informs you of the multiple ways which the merciful bodhisattva Kannon can come to your aid in any sense of peril. So, this was a palm size object that a nun owned and chanted and read so many times that the first page is actually being worn away by the action probably of her thumb against the paper. So, we know this was a well-loved object. - [Steven] And this was a time of peril. This was a moment when the Mongols are taking over the Song dynasty in China. - [Rachel] Because of the destruction of Song China the consequent difficulty of travel to China to obtain Buddhist teachings, Japan becomes a place of sanctuary for Buddhism. By 1292 we are well into the end of days, the end of the Buddhist law in Japan where it was believed it was no longer possible to achieve rebirth. It was too long since the Buddha has left this earth. - [Steven] This is a moment after there had been a terrible civil war and some of the most important temples in Japan had been burned to the ground. - [Rachel] So it really did seem as though the end of the world was upon Japan. - [Steven] What's so interesting is that he also looks like the Buddha. - [Rachel] He does, he has a lot of the signs of the Buddha. He has these very large earlobes, the hands that are held together in prayer. He has this body fat, this feeling of being well-nourished. There is a long and elaborate sacred biography that grew up around Shotoku Taishi but it was modeled primarily on the life of the Buddha as it was enshrined in Buddhist belief. And so, we have three Buddhist nations in this one reliquary. Buddhism begins in India. Within the sculpture we have remnants of the body of the Buddha. These are called shari grains made of a kind of glass or crystal. Those are the body of the Buddha, so that's India. Then we have printed Lotus Sutra that was created in Southern Song China and it was imported to Japan where it was given a beautiful cover and its own special bag. That's Buddhism coming from India through China to Japan. And then we have Japan because Shotoku Taishi is Japan's Sakyamuni. And so, to have an object like this, a Japanese Sakyamuni containing the bones of the Buddha, the Chinese Sutra, the words of the Buddhist law and for it to be enshrined in Japan in this Japanese figure was an incredibly significant act. - [Steven] So we can learn a lot about this sculpture from the historical context in which it was made. From the specific writings that were contained within it. But what can we learn about this sculpture from the object itself? - [Angela] So we know that this sculpture is made out of wood, it's made out of Hinoki cypress. This would have been made by a technique called yosegi zukuri which means joined wood technique. The body and the head were one large log at least 10 inches in diameter, carved roughly, split and hollowed allowed to season or dry for a year so that all of the cracks and kinks and things could be worked out. It's a technique that was perfected in Japan at this time in the Kamakura period. - [Steven] So once the wood had been hollowed and seasoned it would have been filled with the objects that we were discussing. - [Angela] It would have been packed. The location of these objects would have been very deliberate their adjacencies or their placement in the body. The sculpture would have been closed back up and joined and then finally carved, lacquered and painted. - [Steven] So I think what many people would come to the sculpture saying, "I just wanna look at it." Why is it important that I know how it was made? - [Angela] It reminds us that there was a process, that somebody commissioned it, that someone selected the wood. The sculptor interacted with a community of people who chose these objects to put inside. There was some ceremony and ritual to all of that, these were a series of events that happened probably over many years. And so, that history is as much, if not more of this object than the finished product that we're looking at. - [Rachel] But everything about this sculpture is intentional. And the placement of each of these significant objects within the sculpture would also have had meaning. So, where was the most important part in the body? Which was the most important object? Where were they placed? This arrived in the United States in 1936 and it wasn't until it arrived at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston which was its first stop, that anybody realized anything was inside. And the curator at the time thought he could hear some rustling. And so, they asked permission of its owner, Ellery Sedgwick. They had a visiting Japanese conservator in Boston and he opened a small hole in the bottom of the sculpture. And they then pulled out the objects from inside the body cavity. Unfortunately, those 1930s records do not help us a great deal with where the objects were kept. So, it was at this point that I came to my colleague Angela with all of these questions. We are able to look not just from the outside in but from the inside out. - [Angela] I've used a borescope, x-radiography, micro-computer tomography which is an x-ray technique that takes data from lots of two-dimensional x-rays and puts them together to make 3D volumes. And also we were having the wood identified by a expert in Japan who specializes in the wood for Buddhist sculpture. - [Steven] So, are there traces of shelving within the object? - [Angela] That was a very good question and we did not see it until we looked at some CT scanning. We see from this slice of the sculpture that there are actually two opposing notches on the inside and to me that would have been enough to hold a shelf to wedge in objects in the sculpture. So we know at least there's a shelf or compartment here in the waist. - [Steven] You've got a puzzle and now you're trying to put it back together. - [Rachel] When the objects were originally removed in the 1930s, research was begun, photographs were sent to specialists in Japan but the Second World War intervened. And then there was a second campaign by John Rosenfield who was curator and professor of art history here at Harvard, and he wrote a very comprehensive article on the sculpture but it was written in English, and it wasn't read in Japan until very recently. And it's just now that we have a brand new museum building with curatorial department, storage and the Straus Center in the same building on a university campus where we also have access to pedologists, to graduate students, to visiting scholars, to our connections to our scholarly friends in Japan. Now that we're in this situation, finally work that was begun in 1937 is actually underway. - [Steven] This is one of numerous sculptures of this figure about this size, although each one is a little bit different but this figure is distinguished because it's in such exceptional condition. - [Rachel] What the sculpture does and his importance in our museums is that he draws people in to a sense of the historical, of the complex, of things that are not immediately solvable. And it requires a whole village of people. It's taken maybe 60, 70 years for us to come together with enough expertise to even begin to unpack what this object is. And yet, even if you don't know that you don't know who he is, you can still walk into this museum, see him and know that you're in the presence of something complicated and rich, and that you wanna know more about. This isn't gonna be over in an instant, this is a relationship that builds. And living with that complexity is I think, one of the most attractive and important things about this object in the museums. (jazz piano music)