Renewed Life, Renewed Meaning

By Julia Leonardos
September 21, 2016
Left Hand of a Colossal Amitābha Buddha (Amida), attributed to Kaikei (active c. 1183–1236), Japanese, first quarter 13th century. Wood with traces of lacquer, polychromy, and gilding. Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Gift of Charles Bain Hoyt, 1931.9. 

A large, disembodied hand of the Amida Buddha is the first thing visitors see upon entering the Harvard Art Museums’ Buddhist gallery on Level 2. With a palm-up posture, the sculpture is at once beautiful and unsettling in its incompleteness: the third and middle fingers curl inward, but the tips are missing, exposing the joints from which fingers should extend. The hand fractures at the wrist, leaving only a fragment of the arm. Because of these missing details, the sculpture offers a one-of-a-kind learning experience.

The hand’s dramatic size, dislocation, and orientation invite viewers to imagine the majestic, 16-foot-tall body to which it was once attached. The wooden sculpture would have been covered in gilded lacquer, gleaming as though it were descending from above to collect the soul of the deceased believer.

The Buddha was the centerpiece of a 13th-century triad attributed to the Japanese master sculptor Kaikei (active c. 1183–1236), which included two attendant Bodhisattvas (enlightened beings who have the capacity to achieve nirvana but who, out of compassion for earthly beings, remain behind to assist those in this world). The triad was originally installed at Iga Bessho (present day Shin-Daibutsu-ji Temple, in Japan’s Mie prefecture). By the 17th century, the temple had fallen into disrepair, and today, only the head of the original Buddha and the pedestal it once stood upon remain. A similar triad that Kaikei created for Harima Bessho (present-day Jōdo-ji Temple, in Hyōgo prefecture), however, has survived, allowing us to discern what this Buddha hand, and the triad it was once a part of, may have looked like.

"You would never be able to see this detail if the sculpture was complete.”

Bearing witness to the sculpture’s extreme decontextualization—from a Japanese temple to a gallery in an American museum—is both a salutary experience and a very privileged one, said Rachel Saunders, the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Associate Curator of Asian Art at the Harvard Art Museums. While it is potentially jarring to enter a gallery and be confronted by a “very obviously dislocated hand,” Saunders said, “we can see right from the inner layers to the outer layers of the sculpture. We can see how the wooden core was attached to the other parts of the arm. There are traces of joints. You can actually see where there’s hemp textile, layered over the wood, and on top of that, a layer of black lacquer, and on top of that, layers of gold. You would never be able to see this detail if the sculpture was complete.”

Displayed with a custom-built mount (designed by senior exhibitions specialist Peter Schilling), the hand almost “floats” in the gallery, Saunders said. The ability to closely examine all angles of the sculpture has proven key to teaching with the work, allowing even students with little to no background in art, art history, or East Asia to make their own discoveries. Extensive research or prior knowledge is not necessary to “see” this object, Saunders said. “You simply have to ask students to look, to really look.”

Being able to learn so much from an incomplete object is hugely valuable, Saunders said. “The hand is decontextualized, but it has a new life here.”


Julia Leonardos served as the Summer 2016 writing and editing intern in the Communications Division at the Harvard Art Museums.