Conservation in Action: Japanese Buddhist Sculptures, November 2019

Conservation and Collections Management

Conservation of the first sculpture, Fudō Myōō, the Immovable One, is now complete, and the object has been installed in a display case next to the public studio in the Walter Ames Compton, MD Gallery (Gallery 280). The Fudō Myōō figure is the central deity of the Five Wisdom Kings, manifestations of the wrathful energies of the Buddhas. They represent the active element of the Buddhist doctrine and the power to convince the reluctant to accept the Buddha’s teaching. The MFA’s Fudō Myōō is portrayed in his most characteristic form; his eyes bulge with anger and in his right hand he holds the sword that cuts through delusion. His left hand originally held the noose used to pull sentient beings toward the path of salvation.

The Fudō Myōō sculpture after treatment
Fudō Myōō as it appears after treatment.

The treatment included light surface cleaning and stabilization of lifting paint using seaweed-based funori adhesive. Fudō Myōō had been treated within recent decades for loan to Nagoya, Japan, for the 1999 exhibition, “Okakura Tenshin and the MFA.” Its current treatment was therefore less involved than work that will be required for the other Temple Room sculptures, which have not been treated since 1980 or earlier.

During the treatment, the conservators made some exciting finds that will ultimately add to understanding of the object’s history. Two inscriptions were found on the underside of the base, one of which appears on an attached modern piece of wood and identifies the base as belonging to the sculpture. The second inscription is written directly onto the base in a flowing script that has proved difficult to discern. After infrared reflectography was used to obtain a clearer image of the inscription, a partial translation suggests that it contains the signature of the artist who constructed the base. Although the base appears to be a later addition made centuries after the sculpture’s fabrication, the identity of its maker could further clarify part of the object’s past and help decipher the rest of the inscription, which may include additional information about the base.

Infrared reflectogram of the inscriptions on the underside of the base
Infrared reflectogram of the inscriptions on the underside of the base.

Glassy blue pigment particles were also found on the face of the figure during examination under microscope.  Although the Fudō Myōō deity is typically depicted as dark blue, the presence of this pigment solely on the face seems unusual. Analysis of the pigment identified the particles as smalt, a blue pigment ground from cobalt glass. Smalt is often associated with Dutch paintings of the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, but its use has been recorded in China in the thirteenth century and in Japanese artworks from the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries. The circumstances of its application to the sculpture, when and why it was added, will require further investigation.

Micrograph of blue pigment particles found on the face of the sculpture
Micrograph (x40) of blue pigment particles found on the face of Fudō Myōō.

One of the many privileges of conservation is the opportunity to closely examine and appreciate previously unseen details. In the case of Fudō Myōō, many decorative painted motifs and cut gold foil (kirikane) designs on the surface that had been obscured by centuries of incense and soot became evident during treatment. Examination of the remaining six objects is underway, and undoubtedly more about the construction and history of these Japanese Buddhist sculptures will be revealed. The public is encouraged to visit Gallery 280, see the work in progress, and take advantage of the dedicated efforts of the MFA Associates, Senior Associates, and Weekend Guides, who are stationed outside the public studio to explain the conservation activities and findings to visitors.

Detail of the decoration on the sculpture’s drapery
Detail of the paint and cut gold foil decoration on the drapery revealed after cleaning.