Masterpiece: Crowned and bejeweled Buddha image and throne shrine

Humility Glorified

Crowned and bejeweled Buddha image and throneAsian Art Museum

Why Is the Buddha Wearing a Crown?
The figure’s leg position and hand gesture tell us that this is the Buddha. Although the young prince who became the Buddha renounced his royal status, his kingly adornments convey the supremacy of his sacred message.

Seated Buddha (approx. 1860-1890)Asian Art Museum

The Story of the Crowned Buddha
During his spiritual quest, the prince who became the Buddha discarded his royal garments and put on a robe made of rags.

The Buddha shown here is in his more typical humble robes. This Buddha originates from the same location and time period as the crowned Buddha.

Crowned and bejeweled Buddha image and throneAsian Art Museum

After the former prince attained Buddhahood, a king named Jambupati attempted to display his superiority to all the other kings of the world. In response, the Buddha manifested himself enthroned in a magically created palace, adorned with royal finery, to teach Jambupati that the grandeur of Buddhahood outshines that of earthly kingship.

The Buddha then preached to Jambupati of the emptiness of riches, the inevitability of suffering, and the impermanence of all things.

The Buddha triumphing over Mara (900-1000)Asian Art Museum

The Body Language of the Buddha
Like the bejeweled Buddha, many images of the Buddha show him in this folded-leg position with his right hand reaching down to call the earth as a witness in his struggle with the demon Mara, who represents craving, illusion, and death.

This Buddha from India is also one of the Asian Art Museum’s masterpieces.

Throne Shrine; Crowned and bejeweled Buddha image in Galley 11Asian Art Museum

Venerating the Buddha
This installation at the Asian Art Museum was inspired by temple environments. The throne shrine and Buddha image would have been situated in an elaborate temple interior and probably surrounded by additional sculptures and ceremonial objects.

Offering container (approx. 1875-1925)Asian Art Museum

At important ceremonies, the Buddhist faithful in Myanmar (Burma) present food and other donations to monks, sometimes in extremely elaborate containers such as this.

Throne Shrine; Crowned and bejeweled Buddha image in Galley 11Asian Art Museum

The “Three Jewels”
Most Buddhists say that they “take refuge” in the “Three Jewels:” the Buddha, the teachings (the dharma) passed down both orally and in writing, and the religious community (the monkhood, or sangha). This display incorporates all three.

The Buddha.

The teachings (the dharma).

Manuscript box with scenes of the story of the wise sage Mahosadha (Mahosadha-jataka [Maha-Ummagga-jataka]), and standAsian Art Museum

The lavishly decorated box was made to contain a handwritten copy of a sacred Buddhist text. A modern printing of a Buddhist text (representing the dharma) is placed inside the box on the throne shrine.

Throne Shrine; Crowned and bejeweled Buddha image in Galley 11Asian Art Museum

The religious community (the monkhood, or sangha).

The monk Shariputra, the chief disciple of the Buddha (approx. 1850-1925)Asian Art Museum

This sculpture of the monk Shariputra, a chief disciple of the Buddha, represents the sangha. In Myanmar the Buddha is sometimes shown flanked by two of his chief disciples, often differentiated by their body positions. Here, sitting respectfully with legs to one side, Shariputra leans forward attentively.

Crowned and bejeweled Buddha image and throneAsian Art Museum

The Symbolism of the Parasol
At the top of this throne shrine is a miniature parasol, an ancient royal symbol. In India and Southeast Asia parasols were (and sometimes still are) held over kings and other revered persons to protect them from the sun and elements. Eventually the parasol became a symbol of high rank.

A Royal and Cosmic Symbol
Like royal thrones of Myanmar, this throne shrine has multiple tiers that step inward then outward again.

The lower tiers refer to mountain ranges that in Buddhist cosmology make up the world, with Mount Meru as the central axis.

The upper tiers refer to higher heavens.

How Was It Made?
The throne shrine is made up of twenty components of lacquered and gilded wood with jewel-like pieces of mirrored glass.

Installing a Burmese Throne Shrine (2019)Asian Art Museum

A Twenty-Part Puzzle
The components of this throne shrine fit together like pieces of a 3D puzzle. Our installation crew needs several hours to assemble or disassemble the throne shrine.

This timelapse video footage was taken in March 2019.

Crowned and bejeweled Buddha image and throneAsian Art Museum

Glamor and Resilience
Expert artisans carved teakwood into a variety of intricate designs. Then they coated it with red lacquer and gold leaf, creating a resplendent effect that recalls the art of the goldsmith. In the often hot, damp climate of Myanmar, wood is vulnerable to damage from moisture and termites. Coating it with lacquer helps protect the wood.

Notice the dragon and small celestial figure in a pose of worship tucked into the detailed carving.

Throne Shrine; Crowned and bejeweled Buddha image in Galley 11Asian Art Museum

Notice also that the legs are recessed beneath the skirt, giving the throne the appearance of hovering above the ground.

Crowned and bejeweled Buddha image and throneAsian Art Museum

Mandalay Style
The style, materials, and fabrication of the throne shrine tell us that it was probably made in Myanmar when the capital was at Mandalay (1857–1885). The arts of Mandalay were characterized by rich colors, intricate decoration, and frequent use of gilding to create an opulent impression.

The Palace Mandalay (Centre of the Universe) (about 1890) by Felice BeatoThe J. Paul Getty Museum

The Last Kingdom of Myanmar (Burma)
The Burmese kingdom began the nineteenth century strong and vigorous. Little by little, though, it lost territory to the British. When Mandalay was founded as the new capital in 1857, all of the rich coastal areas of Burma were in British hands, and Mandalay could conduct trade only through the British. Even so, the Mandalay period saw a flourishing of architecture and other arts as well as music and theater. The new capital of Mandalay retained power only till 1885, when British forces occupied the city and sent the king into exile.

The Burmese throne shrine (2006.27.1.a-.t) (late 1990's)Asian Art Museum

Journey to San Francisco
The throne shrine and the Buddha image traveled from Myanmar to Honolulu, to New Jersey, to the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.

The throne shrine in Doris Duke’s estate in New Jersey, late 1990s. Photograph by Asian Art Museum Staff.

The American heiress Doris Duke (1912–1993) purchased many Thai and Burmese works of art, including this shrine and Buddha, with the intent of creating a Southeast Asian cultural park for the public in Hawai’i. Although this park never got built, Duke is remembered as a serious art collector. Her collection of Islamic art and architecture may be seen at her former home in Honolulu. After her death, her foundation donated her collection of Southeast Asian art to several American museums. There are no records of exactly where the throne shrine originally came from or how Doris Duke’s agent bought it.

Amitayus, the Buddha of boundless life (dated 1770, Qing dynasty (1644-1911), Reign of the Qianlong emperor (1736-1795)Asian Art Museum

Humility Adorned
As you go through the Asian Art Museum's collection, look for images of the Buddha wearing a crown or sitting on a throne. Here is an example you may encounter of the art of the Tibetan Buddhist world. How many others can you find? Can you think of examples in other religious traditions when a humble teacher is shown crowned like a king or queen?

Credits: Story

Masterpiece presentation made possible with the generous support of Julia K. Cheng and Family.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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