Theater & art

Frame by Frame

Javanese treasure at a Yale art gallery

Yale University Art Gallery

NEW HAVEN — You can imagine this stunning object at the center of a dark, cavernous room, picked out by shafts of light from a slit in the domed ceiling high above, the thing itself radiating immense, unassailable power.

Or maybe, even better, at the center of a Rorschach tableau, its glistening form perched on puffs of rainbow colored clouds, radiating love beams, on either side a choir of cherubs fluting ethereal descants through Dizzy Gillespie cheeks.

Well, but in fact (I hate to disappoint) it’s unassumingly placed in the slightly overcrowded but very beautiful Indo-Pacific gallery at the Yale University Art Gallery.


What is it? It’s a kind of crown, made from repousse gold, intended to cover the topknot of a person, or perhaps even a statue.

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It was made in Java, at least a century before the Battle of Hastings — sometime in the late ninth or early 10th century. Goldsmiths in the Javanese kingdom of Medang, a Hindu-Buddhist kingdom established by King Sanjaya in the eighth century, were clearly at the top of their game.

When a hoard — the so-called Wonoboyo Hoard — of ninth-century gold (and some silver) artifacts was discovered in a small hamlet in central Java in 1990, it became instantly famous, and the objects were quickly deposited in the National Museum of Indonesia. Two crowns like this one were in that find of around 1,000 ceremonial objects.

If you look at it closely, you can see dozens of small, bulbous spirals protruding from the crown’s surface. These represent the snails that, according to Buddhist mythology, crawled onto the Buddha’s head to protect him from the heat of the sun.

Oh, splendid conception! Wondrous effect of love, humility, and peace! No wonder it had to be executed in gold.


These snail shells rhyme in one’s mind with the curl of the Buddha’s smile. The transparent stone ensconced at the top of the crown, meanwhile, is supposed to symbolize the bump on the Buddha’s head — his “usnisha,” or bump of wisdom.

The crown was a gift from Valerie and Hunter Thompson, part of a tremendous donation of Javanese gold objects in 2007. Its scope and significance spurred the formation of the Yale University Art Gallery’s Department of Indo-Pacific Art, and subsequently a gallery, filled with extraordinary ikat and other textiles, carvings, swords, and gold, that is among my favorites in New England.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at