Prince Shōtoku: The Secrets Within

, University Teaching Gallery, Harvard Art Museums
A wooden sculpture of a young boy standing upright. The boy is wearing a long, red piece of clothing that goes from his hips and covers his feet. His hands are together in front of his chest. The boy is bald and is looking down at his hands.

Prince Shōtoku at Age Two, Japanese, Kamakura period, datable to c. 1292. Wood (hinoki cypress) with polychromy; inlaid rock crystal (quartz) eyes. Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Partial and promised gift of Walter C. Sedgwick in memory of Ellery Sedgwick Sr. and Ellery Sedgwick Jr., 2019.122.

University Teaching Gallery, Harvard Art Museums

This exhibition gives visitors the rare chance to encounter a significant 13th-century Japanese icon, Prince Shōtoku at Age Two, from the inside out. Legendary prince Shōtoku Taishi (c. 574–622) is regarded as the founder of Buddhism in Japan. At two years old (one by the Western count), he was believed to have taken several steps forward, faced east, put his hands together, and praised the Buddha. A sacred relic, the eyeball of the Buddha, then appeared between his hands. The diminutive life-size sculpture—the oldest and finest of its kind—depicts that miraculous moment.

This striking sculpture is remarkable not only for its seemingly animated presence, but also for the cache of more than 70 objects contained within the hollow body cavity. Sealed inside a veritable time capsule for over 700 years, these objects—relic grains, sutras, miniature sculptures, and scraps of paper inscribed with personalized poems and prayers—were carefully removed in the early 20th century. One of the most important objects from the group, an extremely rare printed Lotus Sutra dating to the Southern Song period (c. 1160), was subsequently gifted to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Thanks to the generosity of the Library of Congress, this exhibition reunites the Sutra with the remaining ensemble for the first time in over 70 years.

Also featured in the exhibition is the spectacular 14th-century painting The Legendary Biography of Prince Shōtoku, on loan from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The painting relates several miraculous incidents from the prince’s early life.

Curated by Rachel Saunders, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Associate Curator of Asian Art, Harvard Art Museums.

This exhibition was made possible in part by the Robert H. Ellsworth Bequest to the Harvard Art Museums. Additional support was provided by Harvard University’s Edwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies and by the Harvard Art Museums’ Leopold (Harvard M.B.A. ’64) and Jane Swergold Asian Art Exhibitions and Publications Fund and José Soriano Fund. Support for related programming provided by the Robert and Margaret Rothschild Lecture Fund.

Online Resources

A digital tool on the museums’ website allows visitors to learn more about the individual objects from within the sculpture, drawing on recent research and conservation efforts.

Learn more about the exhibition in our series of short videos available on Vimeo.