Conservation in Action: Japanese Buddhist Sculptures, December 2019

Conservation and Collections Management

Treatment of the project’s second sculpture, Bishamonten, the Guardian of the North, is complete. The Guardian of the North is named Tamonten, one of the Four Heavenly Kings who each watch over one cardinal direction. Because the North is considered a particularly dangerous direction, as it is the source of malevolent forces, Tamonten often inspires independent worship. When worshipped as a separate deity, he is referred to as Bishamonten. The MFA’s Bishamonten is identified by his decorative armor and the pagoda he holds in his left hand, symbolizing the divine treasure house. His right hand would have likely held some kind of weapon.

The Bishamonten sculpture before treatment
Bishamonten with the pagoda removed before treatment is undertaken.

Conservation of the figure consisted mostly of stabilizing the many flaking paint layers with isinglass, an adhesive made from the air bladders of fish. Once the paint was secure, the sculpture was lightly cleaned with a soft brush and cosmetic sponges. During treatment, several areas of very elegant polychrome and cut gold foil (kirikane) decoration were noted. Plans are now underway to produce a digital recreation of the original, brightly-colored appearance of the sculpture’s surface, based on remnants of the decoration.

Detail of the polychrome decoration remaining on the sculpture
Detail of remnants of the polychrome decoration revealed during treatment.

A new wooden base panel was fabricated to replace an early twentieth-century board that had warped and split over time. An inscription on the underside of the old panel indicates that the sculpture had been restored in 1909-1910 by Japanese sculptor Niiro Chūnosuke. His work was not well documented at the time, so the information is very helpful to understanding the object’s conservation history.

Panel from the wooden base showing the Inscription on the underside
Inscription on the underside of the old panel.

During examination, X-radiographs taken of Bishamonten revealed the presence of a rectangular object in the hollow interior of the torso. The shape had the appearance of a votive plaque. Since the head of the sculpture, which was originally a separate detachable piece, had been nailed in place in recent history and would be difficult to remove, an alternate method for viewing the plaque had to be devised.

X-radiograph of the sculpture with the votive plaque annotated
X-radiograph of Bishamonten showing the votive plaque in the torso.

Dr. Benjamin Warf, a renowned pediatric neurosurgeon from Boston Children’s Hospital, along with two endoscope developers from Karl Storz Endovision, Inc., generously brought several endoscope prototypes to the MFA that were small enough to fit through a very slight opening between the head and shoulder in order to access the interior. Bishamonten’s votive plaque was quickly located and translated; it had been added in 1909 to document the restoration of the sculpture by Niiro Chūnosuke. We hope to work with Dr. Warf and Karl Storz Endovision again in the future and are very appreciative for their collaboration.

Endoscope image of the inscription on the votive plaque
Endoscope image of the interior votive plaque.