The Death of the Buddha, a hanging scroll painting


British Museum

British Museum

The commemoration of the death of the Buddha and his entry into nirvana is the most spiritually profound event of the Buddhist calendar. It is marked with special ceremonies and readings of sūtras (nehan-e) on the 15th day of the 2nd month. Large paintings are known to have been used as the focus of worship in such ceremonies since at least the Nara period (710-94). They show beasts, lay persons, monks and deities gathering in lamentation around the golden-hued figure of the Buddha as he lies dying on a jewelled dais.

During the Kamakura period (1185-1333), increasingly large numbers were produced. Some, like this example, give evidence of renewed stylistic influence from Song dynasty China.

Despite significant areas of loss from the original silk support, many of the assembled figures and animals are still clearly visible, their expressions of grief movingly rendered. Harder to make out is the group of deities descending from the top right corner, led by Anritsu Sonja (Sanskrit: Aniruddha), one of the Buddha's sixteen disciples, and with the Buddha's mother Queen Maya in the centre, wearing a jewelled crown.

In the centre of the sky a full moon shines down through pairs of sal trees (which joined together and turned white at the moment of the Buddha's nirvana). Behind these flows the Badaiga River (Sanskrit: Ajiravati), the place in central India where the Buddha is said to have died.

The painting relates technically to works by the celebrated Buddhist painter Ryōzen.

From 1998 to 2000 this painting was extensively repaired and restored to its original format as a hanging scroll in the Usami Studio at the Kyoto National Museum, with assistance from agencies of the Japanese Government.

Show lessRead more
  • Title: The Death of the Buddha, a hanging scroll painting
  • Date Created: 1300/1399
  • Physical Dimensions: Height: 195.40cm; Width: 145.80cm
  • External Link: British Museum collection online
  • Technique: painted
  • Subject: buddha; death of buddha
  • Registration number: 1881,1210,0.1.JA
  • Production place: Painted in Japan
  • Producer: School of/style of Ryozen. Formerly attributed to Kose Hirotaka. Formerly attributed to Li Longmian
  • Period/culture: Kamakura Period
  • Material: silk
  • Copyright: Photo: © Trustees of the British Museum
  • Acquisition: Purchased from Anderson, William