Clay relief tiles with figures of the Buddha, known as senbutsu, were made for only a short period of time, between the second half of the seventh and the early eighth century. Here, the Buddha sits beneath a canopy with two (unidentifiable) attendant bodhisattvas in front of the sacred bodhi tree. This example is believed to have been an interior wall decoration at Tachibanadera Temple in Asuka, near the ancient capital of Nara.
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Title:Tile with Buddha Triad
Period:Asuka period (538–710)
Date:second half 7th century
Medium:Earthenware with traces of color
Dimensions:H. 9 5/8 in. (24.5 cm); W. 7 3/4 in. (19.7 cm); D. 1 1/2 in. (3.8 cm)
Credit Line:Mary Griggs Burke Collection, Gift of the Mary and Jackson Burke Foundation, 2015
Clay relief tiles with figures of the Buddha, known as senbutsu (clay-tile Buddhas), have been discovered in many regions of Japan, the excavation sites extending from as far east as Fukushima Prefecture in the Tohoku region of Honshu to Oita Prefecture on the westernmost island of Kyushu. This example depicts the Buddha seated, with two attendant bodhisattvas, in front of the sacred bodhi tree, under which he received enlightenment. Some of the most important discoveries of senbutsu have been made in the Asuka region, south of Nara, the ancient capital. Of particular significance is the 1974 excavation at Kawaradera in Asuka village, where senbutsu, fragments of clay statues, bronze statuettes, and metal ornaments were discovered in a large pit behind the foundations of the temple structure, the objects apparently buried after a fire that probably occurred in the early eighth century. Directly opposite Kawaradera is Tachibanadera, to which the Burke senbutsu is attributed, as the raised rim is characteristic of tiles associated with this temple. Among the extant examples of senbutsu, those from Tachibanadera are believed to be the earliest. The traditional dating for the establishment of Tachibanadera appears in the Hōryūji ruki shizaicho (Treasures of Hōryūji through the Ages), dated 747, which states that the temple was founded during the tenure of Shōtoku Taishi as prince regent (593–622). On the basis of dates established for the temple's stone foundations, however, scholars posit that Tachibanadera was established later, during the Tenchi era (662–72). The square tiles, which bore either triads or single figures and were variously decorated with gold leaf and pigments, are believed to have functioned as wall decorations in the main halls, lecture halls, and pagodas of the temple complexes. And although no temple that preserves this ancient method of ornamentation survives, some have speculated that the tiles were arranged side by side and affixed to walls with nails inserted through small holes, features visible on the Burke tile. Both the manufacture and the function of senbutsu have direct sources in the Chinese artistic tradition. Closely related though slightly smaller clay relief tiles were produced in China as private devotional plaques in the seventh century. Senbutsu were made by impressing clay in negative molds to produce an image in low relief. The unbaked tile was extracted from the mold by means of a material that would ease separation, possibly ash made from burned wood or straw, and then fired. Considering the substantial quantity of extant tiles, relatively few molds have survived, a result perhaps of repeated use for mass production. The manufacture of senbutsu is related to the production of gilt-copper répoussé Buddhist plaques (also produced in Tang China), known as oshidashi (pushed-out) butsu, for use in miniature shrines. It has been suggested that some répoussé plaques (which were made by hammering sheets of copper over a positive metal matrix) and senbutsu were produced from common original molds, which may account for the striking similarity in the composition and style of many examples. A triad formation, as represented by the Burke tile, is a fundamental and pervasive grouping in the Buddhist pictorial tradition. Although details may vary, the basic compositional elements of both Chinese and Japanese triad tiles are similar. Each tile includes a figure of the Buddha seated with pendant legs on a high-backed throne and with hands held in the jōin mudra, which symbolizes a state of concentration. Flanking the Buddha, two standing bodhisattvas in prayer are supported by lotus pedestals that emanate beneath the Buddha from a single stem of the lotus blossom. Above the Buddha is an umbrella-like canopy with pendant jewels. Japanese square senbutsu triads are further enhanced in the upper corners by figures of hiten (flying bodhisattvas), whose twisted postures suggest their descent from the heavens to attend the Buddha. The iconographic scheme of Japanese senbutsu triads is ambiguous. In general, if a Buddha is depicted seated with pendant legs on a throne, he is identified as Miroku (Skt: Maitreya), the Buddha of the Future. Some triad fragments excavated at Kawaradera, however, are incised on the back with characters for the names of several other manifestations of the Buddha, including Shaka (Shakyamuni), the historical Buddha, and Amida (Amitabha), the Buddha of Boundless Light, as well as Miroku. This would suggest that the seated figure is a generic representation of multiple manifestations of the Buddha, a concept fundamental to Mahayana Buddhism. The attendant bodhisattvas have no attributes and cannot be specifically identified. The stylistic features of senbutsu reveal aspects of an early Tang mode. The Buddha's fleshy upper torso, the form subtly implied through the thin folds of drapery rendered in delicate relief, reflects characteristics further developed slightly later in the Tang. This style is exemplified in larger scale by the famous early-eighth-century stone reliefs of Buddhist triads from Baojingsi in Xian. In comparison with the Chinese examples, however, the Buddhas on Japanese tiles are less naturalistically conceived. The composition is naively executed in split perspective: the upper parts of the bodies are represented from head to waist in a frontal position, whereas the lower parts (as well as the lotus pedestals) are tilted downward, which creates a diagonal perspective from above. Given that both the Japanese and the Chinese tiles were manufactured in the seventh century and share comparable pictorial features, the adoption of this decorative technique in Japan must have occurred soon after the production of the Chinese prototypes. Senbutsu may have been introduced to Japan by immigrant artisans from the continent. It is also possible that Chinese senbutsu were brought to Japan by emissaries returning from imperially sponsored missions to China in the second half of the seventh century. In forming wall displays with square senbutsu, artisans attempted to provide a setting for the main sculptures in the temple hall that would be evocative of the Buddha's realm. What the Japanese were apparently trying to replicate with the tiles, albeit on a smaller scale, was the monumental splendor of the decorated interiors of Chinese Buddhist cave temples such as those at Dunhuang in northwestern Gansu Province and Yungang in northern China. Senbutsu were produced in Japan for a relatively short period extending from the second half of the seventh century to the early eighth century, after which this type of temple decoration declined in popularity and its production ceased. GWN
[Miyeko Murase 2000, Bridge of Dreams]  See Matsushita Takaaki 1977, p. 2; see also Nara National Museum 1976.  Kuno Takeshi 1976, p. 60.  Ibid.  For an artist's rendering of the manner in which senbutsu may have been displayed, see Hirata Yutaka 1989, pp. 60-61; see also Kuno Takeshi 1976, p. 49..  Kuno Takeshi 1976, pp. 63–65. This type of Chinese tile is associated with Daciensi, a temple in Xian built in 652; see Soper 1969, pp. 31-36. . See Kurata Bunsaku 1981, no. 1.  See Mitsumori Masashi 1981, pp. 1138-47; see also Owaki Kiyoshi 1986, pp. 4–25.  This attribute derives from descriptions of the Buddha's miraculous power to transform offerings of flowers, parasols, and other precious objects into a canopy; see Weinstein 1978, pp. 1–3.  Ohashi Katsuaki 1980, p. 13.  Ibid., p. 17.  Ibid., p. 13.  See Dunhuang Research Institute 1981, no. 177; and Shinkai Taketaro and Nakagawa Tadayori 1921, pl. 190.
Inscription: Box inscription by Ishida Mosaku, former Director of the Nara National Museum
Mary and Jackson Burke Foundation , New York (until 2015; donated to MMA)
New York. Asia Society. "The Story of a Painting: The Korean Buddhist Treasure from the Burke Foundation," April 23, 1991–July 28, 1991.
Richmond. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. "Jewel Rivers: Japanese Art from The Burke Collection.," October 25, 1993–January 2, 1994.
Santa Barbara Museum of Art. "Jewel Rivers: Japanese Art from The Burke Collection.," February 26, 1994–April 24, 1994.
Minneapolis Institute of Arts. "Jewel Rivers: Japanese Art from The Burke Collection.," October 14, 1994–January 1, 1995.
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Museum of Fine Arts, Gifu. "Enduring Legacy of Japanese Art: The Mary Griggs Burke Collection," July 5, 2005–August 19, 2005.
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Tsuji Nobuo 辻惟雄, Mary Griggs Burke, Nihon Keizai Shinbunsha 日本経済新聞社, and Gifu-ken Bijutsukan 岐阜県美術館. Nyūyōku Bāku korekushon-ten: Nihon no bi sanzennen no kagayaki ニューヨーク・バーク・コレクション展 : 日本の美三千年の輝き(Enduring legacy of Japanese art: The Mary Griggs Burke collection). Exh. cat. [Tokyo]: Nihon Keizai Shinbunsha, 2005, p. 61, cat. no. 5.
Murase, Miyeko, Il Kim, Shi-yee Liu, Gratia W. Nakahashi, Stephanie Wada, Soyoung Lee, and David Ake Sensabaugh. Art Through a Lifetime: The Mary Griggs Burke Collection. Vol. 2, Japanese Objects, Korean Art, Chinese Art. [New York]: Mary and Jackson Burke Foundation, , p. 2, cat. no. 546.
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