Conservation in Action: Japanese Buddhist Sculptures, March 2020

Conservation and Collections Management

The gilded Dainichi, the Buddha of Infinite Illumination was the last of the sculptures to be deinstalled from the Temple Room, now closed in preparation for upcoming upgrades to the climate control system. The figure has been disassembled into its eleven component parts, moved into the adjacent conservation studio, and photographed. As the supreme deity in the Esoteric Buddhist pantheon, Dainichi is believed to be the source from which all other deities emanate. His hands are in the “wisdom-fist” gesture, symbolizing divine knowledge. His crown, lavish jewelry, and scarves connote his kingly status and help distinguish him from other Buddhas who are plainly dressed to reflect their monastic existence.

In mid-March, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the temporary closure of the Museum, and treatments that were underway on a second Dainichi, the Buddha of Infinite Illumination and three other sculptures were halted. However, conservators have been using this time to focus on the development of several outreach and educational efforts stemming from this project.

The Dainichi sculpture before treatment
Dainichi as it appeared before treatment.

These activities include collaborations with several local university students to produce conservation content that can be presented digitally to Museum visitors. One project involves the development of a 3-D model of the sculpture, Bishamonten, the Guardian of the North, with a color recreation overlay that will help illustrate how brightly the original painted surface would have appeared. This model will be based on careful examination, pigment analysis, and comparanda research.

Photogrammetry image of the Bishamonten sculpture
Photogrammetry image of Bishamonten.

Conservators continued working with the MIT class, Design Experience Workshop 2020—Augmented, Immersive and Mobile Kyoto for Boston MFA, listening to the students’ project updates recently regarding the design of interactive and immersive displays and providing constructive feedback. In another partnership, Formlabs, a 3-D printing company based in Somerville, MA, has created a model of Dainichi at one-fifth of the scale to demonstrate its original construction methods. The individual sections of the sculpture were determined by close examination and X-radiographs. For the printed model, magnets are embedded into the separate pieces to allow them to be taken apart and rejoined, similar to a 3-D puzzle.

A 3-D printed model of the Dainichi sculpture assembled with embedded magnets
The 3-D printed model of Dainichi assembled with embedded magnets.

Along with these initiatives to enhance the public’s understanding of the sculptures, conservators have also frequently presented their work as part of the MFA’s “Curated Conversations” program and hosted other interested classes and groups. The team looks forward to continuing these efforts when the Museum re-opens.

Conservators hold cast iron sound chimes made by Master Keizo Myochin, pictured second from the left
Project conservators host distinguished guest Master Keizo Myochin (pictured second from the left), who visited the Museum in March while lecturing at MIT. Two of them hold cast iron sound chimes made from tamahagane, the special iron used to make Japanese swords. The Myochins are a family of master armorers and blacksmiths who have produced forged works since the late Heian period (784–1185 CE) in Japan.