SPOTLIGHT STORIES

Succor and Salvation in a 13th-century Locket

Dating to the 13th century of the Kamakura period (1185–1333), this special locket is made of fine sandalwood, lacquer and gilt bronze, the locket's interior features carved representations of two Buddhist deities, each serving a different function. Each offering protection and assistance to achieve enlightenment for its keeper. Notice the elegance and self-containment of the left half of the locket, compared to the more active and dynamic forms of the right side.

LOCKET WITH TWO BUDDHIST DEITIES, Japanese, Kamakura period (13th century), (collection: Walters Art Museum)

On the left is the "1,000-armed Kannon" (Avalokiteśvara), an enlightened being who symbolizes compassion for all living creature. Kannon is a Bodhisattva of indeterminate gender, sometimes shown as male, sometimes as female, who postpones Buddhahood to help others. According to Buddhist lore, Kannon's two arms broke after attempting to aid as many humans as possible. The bodhisattva was then granted 1,000 arms by Amida Buddha so that as many people as possible might be helped.

Representations of the 1,000-armed Kannon (Avalokiteśvara) originated not in Japan, in India. This small sculpture of the deity dates from the early 8th century.

AVALOKITESVARA, Indian, bronze and silver, sculpture ca. 700 (collection: National Museum of Australia)

Like its Indian predecessor, each of Kannon's hands either assumes a gesture of prayer (called a mudra) or holds a symbolic object. The objects range from a conch shell (second hand from upper left) to ward off evil and a mask (bottom right hand) to protect against wild beasts, to a jar which is believed to contain a miraculous remedy to quench the faithful's thirst and promote longevity.

Detail of 1,000-Armed Kannon, LOCKET WITH TWO BUDDHIST DEITIES, Japanese, Kamakura period (13th century), (collection: Walters Art Museum)

On the right is the "King of Desire" named Aizen Myoo (Rāgarāja) in Japanese, with a ferocious facial expression. The lion head over his forehead stands for his capacity to transform lust into pure love.

Detail of the deity Aizen Myoo, LOCKET WITH TWO BUDDHIST DEITIES, Japanese, Kamakura period (13th century), (collection: Walters Art Museum)

Aizen Myoo has three eyes, six arms and wears a lion crown on its large head. His skin is colored an intense red color based on the description of it being "like the shining sun" as described in an ancient sutra. His whole body seems inflamed as he attempts to quell human lust and passion.

SEATED AIZEN MYO'O (Ragaraja), Japanese, Kamakura period (13th-14th century) (collection: Tokyo National Museum)

This image of the fierce deity is similar to the famous - and very red - Seated Aizen Myo'o which is the central icon in a shrine also dating to the Kamakura period. As described by the curators of the Tokyo National Museum, where it is kept, Aizen Myoo has hair rising like flames, furious eyes with raised eyebrows and open mouth with fangs that all express his anger.

Detail of Aizen Myoo, LOCKET WITH TWO BUDDHIST DEITIES, Japanese, Kamakura period (13th century), (collection: Walters Art Museum)

Although Aizen's skin is not red in the locket's image, he is set against a once rich red lacquered background to create a stunning effect when the locket was opened.

Made to be carried by a Buddhist priest, this precious object is likely to have survived because it was part of a sacred deposit inside a large wooden image in a temple. It was a common Japanese Buddhist practice to store precious relics inside wood and metal statues.

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