Introduced by a mission from Korea in 552 C.E., Buddhism has long been a central theme in Japanese artwork. Since the king of Paekche, a kingdom in the South East of the Korean peninsula, first gave the Japanese emperor a bronze Buddha statue, the Buddhist art forms that were periodically introduced from China and Korea were tempered in the crucible of local custom and usage, to yield a rich tradition of religious art.
The role of Buddhism in Japan was greatly amplified during the life and reign of Prince Umaydo, known better by his Buddhist name, Prince Shotoku. Shotoku, meaning “Sagely” and “Virtuous,” was born into a family that had been importing foreign Buddhist images for nearly 20 years, and had begun to embrace the religion. During this tumultuous time in Japanese history, proponents of Japan’s native religion, Shinto, set out to destroy the newly created Buddhist temples. Once Shotoku took power of the pro-Buddhist Soga clan, he set out to unite the warring clans that had been dictating the Japanese lifestyle. In doing so, Shotoku made Buddhism the state religion, defeating the powerful proponents of the Shinto religion. This catalyzed Japanese Buddhism, and within 50 years of the original presentation of the Buddhist statue there were 46 temples and 1385 ordained monks and nuns.
During Shotoku’s drive to formalize Buddhism as Japan’s official religion both his palace and temple at Ikaruga were destroyed. But due to Shotoku’s unparalleled effects on Japanese society, the temple was rebuilt around 607 C.E. The Horyu-ji temple buildings are the oldest surviving wooden structures in the world. The temple has since become a treasure trove of priceless value for art of the Asuka Period, deserving the title “the cradle of Japanese art.”
In approximately 623 C.E. Tori Busshi, considered the first great master of Japanese Buddhist sculpture, conceived one of the greatest pieces of Asian Buddhist art, the Shaka Triad. Located at the Horyu-ji temple, the Shaka Triad, also known as the Shaka Trinity, stands 3.82 meters high from the base of the pedestal to the tip of the mandorla. The stature was created out of gilded bronze in several pieces before being put together, and consists of the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, bordered by two bodhisattvas. Each bodhisattva is 0.91 m high, while the central figure, measures out to be 0.86 m. The three figures are situated on a wooden pedestal, backed by a bronze mandorla, decorated with smaller seated Buddha’s cast in relief. The sculpture has been beautifully preserved, although the gilding on the bodhisattvas has become slightly blackened.
The central Buddha figure, Shakyamuni is the original Buddha who can not be spoken or thought of in terms of birth or death, self or other and is the source of all other manifestation of Buddha hood. He appears cross-legged on a pedestal representing the “cosmic mountain.” The Shaka displays several of the important iconographic, symbolic traits of the...