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Video transcript

[Music] we're in the Harvard Art Museum's looking at a small wooden shotoku tyshee and I'm very lucky to be looking at this with a curator and a conservator I'm Rachel Saunders the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller associate curator for Asian art of the hobbit' Art Museum's and I'm Angela Chang assistant director of the Strauss Center for conservation and technical studies I may never have seen a sculpture that had this degree of presence while also seeming quite solemn he's one of our most beloved objects within the Harvard Art Museum's this sculpture shows Prince Shotoku at age 2 when he was supposed to have taken several steps forward puts his hands together and praises the butter and in that moment he manifests a relic and this is of course a miraculous event and the figure it seems to be leaning forward ever so slightly he does have his left knee moving slightly ahead of his right which gives you this suggestion of movement on the right hand side he was a big sweep of material that's moving as he's just about to take this step just this sense of that narrative moment is present in this still sculpture he has a lot of features of a small child he has a little bit of fat around the wrists and at the belly the back of the neck he's a very large head but he has this very serene expression in his eyes as somehow looking both down and out it's something that's beyond our mundane vision there's a lot of debate about whether he actually existed as a historical person some scholars have argued that he was a construction others suggests that he was a historical person that he died around 622 and he achieved a number of political objectives including establishing the country's first constitution and establishing Buddhism in Japan and building a large number of temples some of which survived today he is thought to have been the founder of horde Yugi temple and also she's an orgy temple one of the things that I find most compelling is the glint of the eye the eyes are made out of rock crystal the technique is called yo Coogan it involves taking two pieces of rock crystal shaping and polishing them inserting them from the inside of the head back painting them to depict the poop and then adding a layer of paper and wedging it in place with wood and pins the result is a figure that seems to have a kind of immediate presence so this child of royal lineage has this extraordinary event early in his life and becomes a signifier for the establishment of Buddhism in Japan the relic that he is believed to have manifested between his hands in some versions of the story is the left eyeball of the Buddha so that means that the left eyeball of the Buddha has manifested in Japan which is very far from India which is the Buddhist homeland and it's thanks to sure together that's happened but in this sculpture instead of the Buddha's eyeball being placed between those palms what we found is a small nut between his hands there's that compartment that still has the shell of the lotus seed you can see that by closed looking and we've also seen it through technical imaging and it's a hint that this object is not simply a sculpture that's meant to be seen but an object that's meant to be used because it holds within it quite a secret when you just see it from the outside you don't think about the inside but in fact this sculpture contained within it dedicatory objects that were placed there by people who wanted to create a very personal connection with this child icon and we believe that the sculpture was likely made for nuns in a nunnery there were also male members of this group who put together this sculpture but the majority appear to be nuns probably air socratic nuns who were associated with a particular monk who was working to reform and revive Japanese Buddhism in the Kyoto Nara areas of Western Japan in the late 13th century so whereas this sculpture would have been seen in a fairly public context in a temple it holds within it these deeply personal objects and there's a real variety from miniature sculptures to texts and written objects and a number of those who include short vowels written by people who were promising to follow the Buddhist rules for life and they have dated those and written their names on them and place them inside the sculpture so this is how we're able to date this - around 1292 some of the objects appear to have been long used personal devotional items one is chapter 25 of the Lotus Sutra now this is a tiny booklet and it contains the chapter which informs you of multiple ways which the merciful Bodhisattva Continent can come to your aid in any sense of peril so this was a palm-sized object that a nun owned and chanted and read so many times that the first page is actually being worn away by the action probably her thumb against the paper so we know this was a well-loved object and this was a time of peril this was a moment when the Mongols are taking over the Song Dynasty in China because of the destruction of song China the consequent difficulty of travel to China to obtain Buddhist teachings Japan becomes a place of sanctuary for Buddhism by 1292 we are well into the end of days the end of the Buddhist lore in Japan where it was believed it was no longer possible to achieve rebirth it was too long since the booter had left this earth this is a moment after there had been a terrible civil war and some of the most important temples in Japan had been burned to the ground so it really did seem as though the end of the world was upon Japan what's so interesting is that he also looks like the Buddha he does he has a lot of the signs of the butter he has these very large yellow the hands that are held together in prayer he has this body fat this feeling of being well nourished there is a long and elaborate sacred biography that grew up around shelter courtesy but it was modeled primarily on the life of the Buddha as it was enshrined in Buddhist belief and so we have three ingredients in this one reliquary Buddhism begins in India within the sculpture we have remnants of the body of the footer' these are called sati grains made of a kind of glass or crystal those are the body of the Buddha so that's India then we have printed Lotus Sutra that was created in southern Song China and it was imported to Japan where it was given a beautiful cover and its own special bag that's Buddhism coming from India through China to Japan and then we have Japan because Sholto courtesy is Japan's Shakyamuni and so to have an object like this Japanese Shakyamuni containing the bones of the butter the Chinese Sutra the word of the Buddha floor and for it to be enshrined in Japan in this Japanese figure was an incredibly significant act so we can learn a lot about this sculpture from the historical context in which it was made from the specific writings that were contained within it but what can we learn about this sculpture from the object itself so we know that this sculpture is made out of wood it's made out of Hinoki Cypress this would have been made by a technique called yo sekiz akuti which means joined wood technique the body and the head were one large log at least 10 inches in diameter carved roughly split and hollowed allowed to season or dry for a year so that all the cracks and kinks and things could be worked out it's a technique that was perfected in Japan at this time in the Kamakura period so once the wood had been hollowed and seasoned it would have been filled with the objects that we were discussing it would have been packed the location these objects would have been very deliberate they're adjacencies or their placement in the body the sculpture would have been closed back up and joined and then finally carved lacquered and painted so I think many people would come to the sculpture saying I just want to look at it why is it important that I know how it was made it reminds us that there was a process that somebody commissioned it that someone selected the wood the sculptor interacted with a community of people who chose these objects to put inside there was some ceremony and ritual to all of that these were a series of events that happened probably over many years and so that history is as much if not more of this object than the finished product that we're looking at but everything about this sculpture is intentional and the placement of each of these significant objects within the sculpture would also have had meaning so where was the most important part in the body which was the most important object where were they placed this arrived in the United States in 1936 and it wasn't until it arrived at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston which was its first stop that anybody realized anything was inside and the curator at the time thought he could hear some rustling and so they asked permission of its owner Ellery Sedgwick they had a visiting Japanese conservator in Boston and he opened a small hole in the bottom of the sculpture and they then pulled out the objects from inside the body cavity unfortunately those 1930s records do not help us a great deal with where the objects were kept so it was at this point that I came to my colleague Angela with all of these questions we are able to look not just from the outside in but from the inside out I've used the borescope x-radiography micro computer tomography which is an x-ray technique that takes data from lots of two-dimensional x-rays and puts them together to make 3d volumes and also we were having the wood identified by a expert in Japan who specializes in the wood for Buddhist sculpture so are there traces of shelving within the object that was a very big question and we did not see it until we looked at some CT scanning we see from this slice of the sculpture if there are actually two opposing notches on the inside and to me that would been enough to hold a shelf to wedge in objects in the sculpture so we know at least there's a shelf or compartments here in the waist you've got a puzzle and now you're trying to put it back together when the objects were originally removed and the 1930s research was begun photographs was sent to specialists in Japan but the Second World War intervened and then there was a second campaign by John Rosenfield who was curator and a professor of art history here at Harvard and he wrote a very comprehensive article on this sculpture but it was written in English and it wasn't read in Japan until very recently and it's just now that we have a brand new museum building with curatorial Department storage and distress sent in the same building on a university campus where we also have access to pathologists to graduate students to visiting scholars to our connections to our scholarly friends in Japan now that we're in this situation finally work that was begun in 1937 is actually underway this is one of numerous sculptures of this figure about this size although each one is a little bit different but this figure is distinguished because it's in such exceptional condition what this sculpture does and his importance in our museums is that he draws people in to a sense of the historical of the complex of things that are not immediately solvable and requires a whole village of people and it's taken maybe 60 70 years for us to come together with enough expertise to even begin to unpack what this object is and yet even if you don't know that you don't know who he is you can still walk into this museum see him and know that you're in the presence of something complicated and rich and that you want to know more about this isn't going to be over in an instant this is a relationship that built and living with that complexity is I think one of the most attractive and important things about this object in the museum's [Music]