Conservation in Action: Japanese Buddhist Sculptures, April 2022

Conservation and Collections Management

Treatment of two more sculptures, Amida, the Buddha of Infinite Light and the elaborate Dainichi, the Buddha of Infinite Illumination with mandorla and an eight-part pedestal, is now complete. Amida had evidence of considerable insect damage from its long history, but a thorough examination confirmed there is no active infestation. Areas of damage were strengthened, and insect tunnels were filled with Japanese tissue and adhesives to provide stability.

The Amida sculpture after treatment
Amida as it appears after treatment.

Dainichi was in comparatively good condition, having been extensively treated in the 1980s. That work was fairly invasive and involved partially disassembling the object as well as regilding areas of loss. The current treatment focused on stabilization and primarily consisted of consolidating areas of flaking gilding with adhesives. The inscription in the hollow interior of Dainichi was also photographed using infrared reflectography, a technique that can help image carbon-based materials, such as ink.

Conservator working in the 1980s on the Dainichi sculpture while it is lying on its back
Eleanor Eddy, a conservator of Japanese paintings, working on Dainichi in the 1980s.
The Dainichi sculpture after treatment
Dainichi after the current treatment was completed.
Inscription in the hollow interior of the Dainichi sculpture
The inscription on the inside visible through infrared reflectography.

Visitors often think that the sculpture are made of gilt metal and are surprised to hear they are actually fashioned completely from wood. Nearly all Japanese Buddhist sculptures throughout the centuries are made of wood, many from Japanese cypress (hinoki) due to its valuable properties. To confirm the types of wood used for some of the sculptures included in this project, conservators enlisted help from an international team of wood anatomists, including Mechtild Mertz in Paris and Suyako Tazuru of Kyoto University, who used synchrotron micro-CT scanning to examine very small and degraded wood samples. (Their work was recently published in the Journal of Wood Science.) Results are pending for the Dainichi sample, which is of particular interest as it is suspected to be of a different species than hinoki, such as camphor. If this proves to be the case, it may help fill in some of the missing history of the object, including its region of origin.

Conservator taking a wood sample from the Dainichi sculpture
Associate conservator Linsly Boyer taking a sample from Dainichi.