The Mysteries of Prince Shōtoku

October 11, 2018
Index Magazine

The Mysteries of Prince Shōtoku

99.1979.1 Prince Shōtoku at Age Two, Japanese, Kamakura period, c. 1292. Japanese cypress, assembled woodblock construction with polychromy and rock-crystal inlaid eyes. Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Promised gift of Walter C. Sedgwick in memory of Ellery Sedgwick Sr. and Ellery Sedgwick Jr., 99.1979.1.

The 13th-century Japanese sculpture Prince Shōtoku at Age Two has long captivated curators, conservators, and visitors alike. First acquired by American Ellery Sedgwick in 1936, the sculpture is now a promised gift to the Harvard Art Museums from Walter C. Sedgwick, his grandson.

“It’s an incredibly compelling and charismatic object,” said Rachel Saunders, the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Associate Curator of Asian Art. Saunders is curating an upcoming exhibition on the sculpture and related objects, titled Prince Shōtoku: The Secrets Within (May 25–August 11, 2019). “Prince Shōtoku has a way of drawing people to him, and in so doing he has inspired much research and investigation into his origins.”

Made of hollowed wood, the sculpture portrays Shōtoku Taishi (c. 574–622), the so-called father of Buddhism in Japan. He is depicted as a two year old (one year old by Western count), in the moment after he is said to have stood up, taken several steps forward, placed his hands together, and chanted the name of the Buddha, manifesting a relic between his hands. After his death, Shōtoku was venerated as a religious and cultural hero, and represented at various ages in both painting and sculpture. The statue acquired by Sedgwick is the earliest datable example of a sculpture of the prince at age two, and is regarded as the most elegantly crafted of its type and time.

Besides its art historical and cultural significance, the sculpture contains a multitude of mysteries—more than 50, in fact. When the hollow sculpture was opened in the late 1930s, a cache of devotional objects—including miniature sculptures of protective deities, prayers, charms, and Buddhist scripture—was found inside. Initial research into the sculpture was interrupted during World War II, but Harvard professor John M. Rosenfield subsequently introduced and described the sculpture and its contents in a 1968 article.

The reopening of the Harvard Art Museums in 2014 enabled curators and conservators to more effectively collaborate on the project under the same roof. The arrival of Saunders at the museums in 2015 again prompted researchers to pick up the baton from where Rosenfield and others left off. Saunders is leading the art historical investigation into the sculpture’s secrets; Angela Chang, assistant director, conservator of objects and sculpture, and head of the objects lab in the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, is spearheading the technical investigation.

Acquisition and Preliminary Questions

Even when Ellery Sedgwick acquired Prince Shōtoku at Age Two from a dealer in Japan in 1936, a good deal of information was lacking about the object. In fact, Sedgwick wasn’t aware that the sculpture contained other objects until he arrived in the United States later that year.

The sculpture was shipped to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where the curator at the time discovered that Prince Shōtoku was “rustling.” After obtaining Sedgwick’s permission, a visiting Japanese conservator carefully made an opening in the bottom of the sculpture and discovered the extraordinary cache of dedicatory objects (nōnyūhin) inside, seemingly untouched since being placed there.

Researchers have since pondered how, exactly, these dozens of objects fit inside the diminutive sculpture; how they were placed and arranged within the cavity; and by whom and at what stage in the making of this remarkable figure were they put there.

One intriguing detail is that an archival account about the opening of the sculpture recorded that some objects had been positioned upon a “shelf” inside the sculpture. After decades of uncertainty about whether this may have been possible, recent analysis at the Straus Center found it likely that an interior shelf or compartment did exist. Researchers continue to investigate the significance of this possible arrangement of the dedicatory objects in the sculpture’s interior.

Conceptually, sculptures that contain caches of dedicatory objects are often interpreted as being “animated” or enlivened by the objects placed inside. Saunders and Chang hope to refine this characterization through sustained close examination of every inch of each object in the ensemble. What does this time capsule of sorts tell us about the people who came together and participated in its creation? What does it tell us about other similar sculptures that contain objects?

Local Networking and Analysis

Bolstered by the support and encouragement of Walter Sedgwick, Saunders and Chang have taken advantage of the extraordinary resources available at Harvard University. Here, the sculpture is surrounded by researchers, curators, scholars, and students who possess and can access a wealth of expertise and technical capabilities—ideal for sustained and repeated study of the object and its contents.

Harvard students have taken a significant role in this project, most notably through a 2016 seminar co-taught by Saunders and Harvard East Asian Languages and Civilizations faculty Abé Ryūichi and Melissa McCormick. During the seminar, students conducted original research on specific objects and topics related to the sculpture. Among their accomplishments were the translation of devotional vows, sutra fragments, prayers, and poems, as well as the identification and analysis of ordination certificates, all of which were found inside the sculpture.

Elsewhere on campus, a number of experts have helped provide additional perspectives on the ensemble. Greg Lin, senior scientist at Harvard’s Center for Nanoscale Systems, applied the non-destructive technique of micro-CT (X-ray micro-computed tomography) to image the sculpture’s construction and allow Chang to better assess its present condition.

In-person and on-site research have also been critical components of the investigations. In 2017, Saunders and Chang visited Long Hill, the former Sedgwick family estate in Beverly, Massachusetts, where the sculpture was kept from the late 1930s until it arrived at Harvard, in 1979. There they were able to learn more about the sculpture during those years.

Enlightening Travel

In May 2018, Saunders and Chang broadened their efforts with a journey to Japan. Their travels began in Tokyo in eastern Japan and ended in Hiroshima in the west, with stops at Nara, Kyoto, and Osaka in between.

Alongside curator Seya Ai, of Tokyo National Museum, and curator Seya Takayuki, of Kanazawa Bunko, they surveyed 12 other sculptures depicting Prince Shōtoku at age two, many of which remain installed and in active devotional use at Buddhist temples. Saunders and Chang also consulted with Mechtild Mertz, a researcher at the East Asia Civilizations Research Center in Paris, and Takao Itoh, professor emeritus at Kyoto University. Both are wood identification experts who specialize in Chinese and Japanese sculpture. Saunders and Chang also met with master sculptor Eri Kokei, who employs traditional techniques for making Buddhist sculpture.

Through all of these encounters, Chang said, “we sought to learn about the context and origins of our Shōtoku sculpture, and to compare him with other living examples. We wanted to explore how he is typical or exceptional, and what we could learn from others like him.”

Saunders said that “one very memorable visit was to the temple of Onomichi Jōdōji, in Hiroshima Prefecture, where we came face to face with three Shōtoku sculptures, aged two, aged sixteen, and as regent.” The examination took place in the formal reception area of the temple, on tatami mats, surrounded by Edo period wall paintings. The sliding screens of the room opened to an interior semi-tropical garden and sea breezes.

“At every step of the way,” Saunders said, “we were welcomed with incredible generosity and given extraordinary access to these sculptures by the monks, nuns, and curators who care for them.”

As they continue to investigate the “Sedgwick Shōtoku” in Cambridge, Saunders and Chang are well aware that the information they have brought back may generate as many new questions as answers, pushing research in unexpected directions. However, the sculpture’s special charisma and ability to inspire both researchers and casual viewers—still palpable hundreds of years after its creation and thousands of miles from its place of origin—will surely remain front and center.