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a resource about art and its making

The Buddha Project: Documentation

By Ingrid Neuman
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While the Museum’s sixth-floor galleries are undergoing an extensive renovation over the next several months, the Museum is carefully studying and conducting conservation work on the monumental 12th-century wooden Dainichi Nyorai Buddha. The last time it was moved was 1936, when it was initially installed by Yamanaka & Co., Inc., of New York City, having been transported to the Museum by wagon from Springfield, Massachusetts. When the Buddha is returned to its gallery in late spring 2014, it will be stabilized and we’ll know much more about the art that went into creating this nearly 10-foot-tall sculpture.

One of the first steps in caring for this treasure was to thoroughly document its current condition using digital photography. Diagrams are also being created by RISD student interns in the Conservation Department, with Carmen Ng (RISD BFA ‘14, Furniture Design) meticulously drawing both the exterior and the interior of the wooden torso and head.

The interior of the Buddha not only shows the tool marks wrought by the 12th-century sculptor(s), but also exhibits evidence of previous restoration campaigns. Within the interior of both the head and torso, chisel marks are evident. Large iron-alloy staples also can be seen, as can smaller blocks of wood adhered to cracks. Several large sections of the Buddha, such as the hips, have been replaced or restored over the years, and are in less damaged condition. Ng’s drawings will serve as vital documents once the Buddha is reassembled and the interior cavities are no longer open for study.

As part of the conservation documentation process, three Japanese inscriptions—two on the back of the head and one underneath the left arm—are being translated. One of the inscriptions has been almost fully translated, but the other two, abraded with age, are proving challenging to decipher. Fortunately, photographic technology using infrared reflectography can often reveal details, enhancing pigment particles that have been absorbed by the wood and are not easily discerned by the unaided eye. We hope to learn more about the two remaining inscriptions through the use of infrared reflectography. Detailed digital photography of these inscriptions will also be carried out by our Museum photographer this spring.

To learn more about our Buddha’s structure and history, we have removed small samples from its surface. These have been taken from interior locations that won’t compromise the structural integrity of the sculpture or be visible once it’s put back on display. These samples are being analyzed by microscopy to determine their composition. Although the Buddha is believed to be made of cypress, a wood traditionally used for carving, there is a great disparity in the condition of various parts of the sculpture, with some of the wood surfaces appearing to have more insect damage than others. It would be important to scholars of Asian art, including curators, conservators, and technical art historians, to learn more about the type of wood used in this sculpture, and why the wood exhibits different degrees of earlier insect damage. In other words, we’d like to answer a key question: Is there a relationship between the extent of the pest infestation and the genus and species of wood, and in particular the location of the wood within the tree (heartwood versus sapwood)?

To date, five samples have been sent to Wisconsin to the USDA’s Forest Products Laboratory for technical analysis and identification. Because of the rarity of this type of sculpture in the U.S., comparable sculptures are found only in Japan. International art conservation journals also provide useful comparative analytical information that can help us learn more about the RISD Museum Buddha. 

Coming soon, Part 2: Results of the wood analysis.

*Ingrid Neuman
Museum Conservator *