Apsaras, or hiten in Japanese, are flying celestial beings that accompany Buddhas. These two examples, which display apsaras riding clouds and playing musical instruments, are believed to be part of a group of twelve or fourteen that formerly adorned the mandorla of an eighty-foot-tall statue of Amida at Jōruriji, a Pure Land sect temple in Kyoto. Although the disks and flying sashes are later additions, the apsaras themselves, carved in high relief in Japanese cypress and gilt, are dated to the turn of the twelfth century, when the Amida statue was installed. These apsaras once belonged to the politician Koizumi Sakutarō (1872–1937) and then were separated for many years until they were reunited by Mrs. Burke, who acquired them separately in 1987 and 1992.
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Title:Flying Apsaras (Hiten)
Period:Heian period (794–1185)
Date:late 11th to early 12th century
Medium:Japanese cypress with lacquer and gold
Dimensions:a: Diam. 21 in. (53.3 cm) b: Diam. 21 in. (53.3 cm)
Credit Line:Mary Griggs Burke Collection, Gift of the Mary and Jackson Burke Foundation, 2015
Accession Number:2015.300.251a, b
These disks display two hiten (Skt: apsaras), bodhisattvas who fly on clouds around the Buddha. Also known in Japan as unchū kuyō bosatsu (Bodhisattvas among the Clouds in Adoration of the Buddha), they are often depicted playing musical instruments.
Hiten are important elements in the representation of the Buddha and his realm. They appear on the rim of mandorlas behind statues of the Buddha and on the walls of Buddha halls, and they are often present in painted images. Examples can be cited from the earliest periods of Buddhist art in Japan (cat. no. 5), Korea, and China. East Asian hiten are wingless, whereas those from India and Central Asia tend to be winged, and in this respect the latter may be associated with the angels of Christian art, who perhaps evolved from the winged deities of ancient Iran. Unlike angels, hiten seem never to have acquired a spiritual function, nor is their iconography or genealogy clearly understood.
The most well known winged deity of the Buddhist world, which looks exactly like a Christian angel, is found in a cave painting in Miran, Central Asia. In its pre-Buddhist incarnation in India, it is thought to have been the goddess of water, the wife of Gandharva, a guardian deity and celestial musician represented as a hybrid of a human and a bird.
In China, Daoist immortals were sometimes depicted with feathery wings amid fantastic cloud formations that evoked the celestial regions, but Buddhist incarnations of the airborne deities are in most instances wingless, their ability to fly suggested by their fluttering scarves, their body postures, and their placement in the Buddha's realm.
Hiten appeared in Japan soon after the introduction of Buddhism in the sixth century. Among the most famous examples are those at Horyuji, Nara, where they adorn the Golden Hall (kondō). The cast-bronze Shaka Triad of 623, the central icon in the Golden Hall, is backed by a large mandorla that originally bore a group of hiten on its rim, and small hiten with musical instruments also adorn the canopies that hang above.
Bodhisattvas are often shown with the Amida Buddha in representations of raigō, though the iconographic connection, if any, between the bodhisattvas of raigō and early hiten is unclear. Like hiten, the Amida's bodhisattvas ride on cloud formations; some play musical instruments; others are shown in attitudes of adoration. The most famous examples of such bodhisattvas can be found in the Phoenix Hall of Byōdōin, of 1052, where they hover on the walls above the Amida carved by Jōchō and on the large mandorla behind him. Just as Jōchō's Amida provided the model for later generations of Buddhist sculptors, the decoration of the mandorla in the Phoenix Hall became the standard in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The decorative scheme for this leaf-shaped mandorla, thought to have been perfected by Jōchō and known as hiten ko (short for hiten kōhai, mandorla with hiten), usually includes a statuette of Dainichi at the top, seated among swirling clouds and flanked by a group of twelve or fourteen hiten.
The Burke hiten were first published in 1926, in the catalogue of the collection of Koizumi Sakutarō (Sanshin Koji, 1872–1937), an influential politician and writer of the late Meiji and Taishō periods. Both statuettes were identified in the catalogue as originally having been attached to the central figure of the Amida Buddha in the temple of Jōruriji, south of Kyoto, and dated on stylistic grounds from the late eleventh to the twelfth century. The temple is famous for its unusual display of nine statues of the Amida (fig. 19, page 46), representing the nine levels of raigō. Temple records state that a new building to house the statues was built in 1107. The Amida, the largest of the group—24.5 meters (96 1/4. in.) in height, placed on a pedestal 11.5 meters (45 3/8 in.) high—is an outstanding example of a sculpture based on Jōchō's model in the Phoenix Hall (fig. 20). Backed by a great mandorla adorned with four hiten, the statue on its pedestal is imposing in scale—36 meters (nearly 12 ft.) in height—making the hiten appear quite small. In the late 1950s it was proposed that the mandorla had been adorned with a statuette of Dainichi and either twelve or fourteen hiten, of which all but four were lost. More recent studies suggest that the mandorla is largely a replacement, dating to 1688, while the four remaining hiten are contemporary with the Amida.
If the Jōruriji Amida and its four hiten were indeed made about II07, as suggested by temple records, it is possible that the Burke hiten, dated on stylistic grounds to the same period, originated with this sculptural group. Like the Burke hiten, the four at Jōruriji are made of lacquered and gilded cypress (hinoki) and they are seated on cloud vehicles. The dimensions of the four surviving hiten are commensurate with those in the Burke Collection. The hiten at the top right measures 33.3 centimeters (13 1/8 in.), the figure at the lower right 32.1 centimeters (12 5/8 in.); measurements of the other two are not available. It is possible that hiten b—whose cloud formation suggests a leftward movement—was originally at the viewer's right, below the two remaining hiten and a lost third. Burke hiten a, which turns its head slightly toward the right, may have been the fourth hiten at the left.
The Burke hiten are carved in high relief, their heads rendered almost completely in the round. The disks and the rather fussy ribbons that create the suggestion of movement are later additions. Both figures have sustained noticeable damage on the torsos.
The Burke hiten were separated for many years. Hiten a was acquired by the Burke Collection in 1987, and was reunited in 1992 with hiten b, which had been in a private collection in Germany.
[Miyeko Murase 2000, Bridge of Dreams]
 Nagahiro Toshio 1949; see also Hamada Takashi et al. 1989.  Stein 1921, vol. 4, pls. 40, 41.  Koizumi Sakutarō 1926, pls. 29, 30.  Ruki no koto (Records of Temple History), in Ōta Hirotarō et al. 1978, p. 64.  Inoue Tadashi 1918, p. 47.  Ōta Hirotarō et al. 1978, p. 85; and Nishikawa Kyōtarō et al. 1984, vol. 5.  Inoue Tadashi (1963, pp. 7–20) favors 1047 as the date for the central Amida.  I am grateful to Mr. Tada Tsuguo, of the lwanami Shoten, who helped me to acquire this information.
Mary and Jackson Burke Foundation , New York (until 2015; donated to MMA)
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.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Masterpieces of Japanese Art from The Mary Griggs Burke Collection," March 30–June 25, 2000.
Museum of Fine Arts, Gifu. "Enduring Legacy of Japanese Art: The Mary Griggs Burke Collection," July 5, 2005–August 19, 2005.
Hiroshima Prefectural Art Museum. "Enduring Legacy of Japanese Art: The Mary Griggs Burke Collection," October 4, 2005–December 11, 2005.
Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum. "Enduring Legacy of Japanese Art: The Mary Griggs Burke Collection," January 24, 2006–March 5, 2006.
Miho Museum. "Enduring Legacy of Japanese Art: The Mary Griggs Burke Collection," March 15, 2006–June 11, 2006.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Celebrating the Arts of Japan: The Mary Griggs Burke Collection," October 20, 2015–May 14, 2017.
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. 68, cat. no. 9.
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, , pp. 6–7, cat. no. 550a, b.
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