Conservation in Action: Japanese Buddhist Sculptures, August 2021

Conservation and Collections Management

The conservation studio in the Walter Ames Compton, MD Gallery (Gallery 280) reopened to the public in early February, welcoming visitors once again to view ongoing activities and also to learn about the treatments and results of investigations that were conducted during the pandemic-related closure.

Treatment of Dainichi, the Buddha of Infinite Illumination, which was begun more than a year ago, is complete, and the sculpture is now on display in a case surrounding the conservation studio. Dainichi was originally mostly gilded, but over the centuries much of that gilding was lost, exposing the white ground layer and wood beneath. The recent treatment consisted of carefully stabilizing areas of flaking decorative materials and lightly cleaning the surface to remove dust. Although the object does not look strikingly different following treatment, the remaining ground layer and gilding are now securely attached to the surface, and conservators have a much better understanding of the structure and history of the object. (Please see the September 2020 entry for more on the 3-D printed model made based on new understandings of its structure.)

The Dainichi sculpture before and after treatment
Dainichi before conservation (left) and as it appears now after treatment (right).

This summer, conservators are joined by two conservation interns, Pilar Brooks and Mayuli Santiesteban, to assist with stabilization of the pedestal for a different sculpture of Dainichi. Of the seven sculptures from the Temple Room, this figure, Dainichi, the Buddha of Infinite Illumination, is the most elaborate, with a mandorla and an eight-part pedestal. It also has an extensive inscription describing its commission for the felicitous rebirth of an otherwise unknown monk, Sojūn. The names of the sculptor, donors, and the date of the dedication are also provided.

The Dainichi sculpture with mandorla on its pedestal in the Temple Room
Dainichi on view in the Temple Room before deinstallation and treatment.

Although the pedestal was created in the early twentieth century by Japanese sculptor Niiro Chūnosuke, it is in much worse condition than its more ancient counterparts. The section of the pedestal that the interns are focused on is covered in cracking and lifting lacquer. The treatment plan is to secure the fragile lacquer using the Japanese shimbari technique to hold the lacquer in place as the adhesive dries. This method relies on using thin rods (traditionally bamboo) which can be used to apply clamping pressure to a specific area by bracing it against a backing support, such as a wooden frame. The treatment will be of great benefit to the preservation of the object and will provide the interns with a unique conservation experience. (Follow @mfaconservation on Instagram to see updates about the interns’ work on this and other projects throughout the summer.)

Two conservation students pictured seated behind an element from the Dainichi pedestal
Mayuli Santiesteban (left) and Pilar Brooks (right) with an element from Dainichi’s pedestal.