Theater & art

Frame by Frame

View of tranquillity in an early landscape

William Sturgis Bigelow Collection

This painting might not look too remarkable at first glance, but it is, in fact, phenomenally special. One scholar, J.M. Rosenfield, has described it as “one of the most important landmarks in the history of East Asian art to be seen in the West.”

It was made toward the end of Japan’s Nara period (710-794), which makes it very, very old. But it is noteworthy not just because of its age. Rather, the painting is believed to be the earliest surviving large-scale East Asian painting to depict the landscape. Given the centrality of the landscape tradition to Chinese, Japanese, and Korean art, this is obviously a big claim to fame.

It was acquired by the Museum of Fine Arts in 1911, when the Bostonian physician William Sturgis Bigelow, who had lived in Japan for seven years and collected voraciously, presented the museum with more than 3,000 Japanese paintings.

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What this one shows is the so-called Historical Buddha — just one of many simultaneously existing Buddhas, according to Mahayana Buddhism, each one presiding over his own universe — on Vulture Peak, where he and his disciples retreated for training, and where the Buddha himself delivered a number of sermons, or sutras.

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Here, the Buddha is shown delivering the famous Lotus Sutra, a distillation of his most important teachings, wherein Vulture Peak is described (in Chapter 16) as “a safe and tranquil” place where there are “gardens and groves, halls and towers, variously adorned with gems, as well as jeweled trees with many blossoms and fruits,” and so on.

These words must have inspired whoever painted this image. And yet, of course, there is a problem.

Even in front of the painting itself, which is on display at the MFA for only a limited period (like many early Asian works, it is very vulnerable to light exposure), it’s very difficult to make out the landscape that is the source of the work’s great fame.

There are craggy mountain peaks, deep ravines, and gnarled trees all across the background, but to the naked eye, much of it is difficult to discern. The painting has been like this, moreover, for a very long time.

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Already by the 12th century, it was a ruin. According to Kanshin, the 12th-century director of temple affairs at the great Toda-ji temple complex in Nara (where the painting hung), “The sections below where the Historical Buddha is seated have been entirely destroyed. They have been lost through natural causes or entirely cut off.”

Kanshin ordered a restoration, and there have been other attempts to restore and re-paint the work subsequently. But even modern technical analyses have failed to establish exactly what was done to the painting and when.

Despite all that, what an extraordinary thing it is to stand in front of an image so rare, so old, and so deeply serene.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @SebastianSmee.