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A Stunning Buddhist Triptych

An extremely rare set of Chinese Buddhist paintings with a Japanese provenance history hints at the propagation of religious faith across cultures
July 26, 2016

Anita Chung Curator of Chinese Art

Shakyamuni Triad: Buddha Attended by Manjushri and Samantabhadra late 13th–early 14th century. China, Yuan dynasty (1279–1368). Triptych of three hanging scrolls: ink and color on silk; each 106.9 x 46.4 cm. Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund 2009.342.1–3


The museum’s holdings of Yuan dynasty (1271–1368) Chinese paintings are remarkable for their artistic quality and diversity. Further enriching the collection is the recent exceptional acquisition of the Shakyamuni Triad, a rare and complete set of three hanging scrolls depicting the historic Buddha, Shakyamuni, attended by two bodhisattvas, Manjushri (the Bodhisattva of Wisdom) and Samantabhadra (the Bodhisattva of Universal Virtue).  

Stylistically, the Shakyamuni Triad represents a continuation and transformation of the Tang (618–907) tradition of iconic representation.1 Similar to the triptych that was once loaned by the Nison-in temple in Kyoto to Cleveland for inclusion in the 1968 landmark exhibition Chinese Art under the Mongols: The Yuan Dynasty (1279–1368),2the triad exemplifies the use of the triptych format and related compositional formulas that may already have been in vogue during the Southern Song dynasty (960–1279).3  

In the center of the composition, Shakyamuni is seated cross-legged on an ornate lotus-Sumeru throne with the hand gesture of teaching. Two arhats (great disciples of the Buddha), Mahakasyapa and Ananda, stand at the sides of a rockery stand with an incense burner. Spatially, the arhats, the incense burner, and the stand are placed farther away from Shakyamuni, who occupies the upper half of the composition filled with colored clouds.  


Airy Spatial Setting

Airy Spatial Setting The composition represents Shaka’s sermon in the air with reference to the Lotus Sutra.


Flanking the Buddha on the left and the right are the attending bodhisattvas depicted in separate scrolls. Manjushri with his lion-vehicle appears to the left of Shakyamuni, carrying a ruyi sceptre in his left hand, and is paired with Samantabhadra to the right, who rides on a six-husked white elephant and holds a sutra in his hand. Both deities are seated on a lotus throne with the legs crossed in the pose of meditation. The cloud motifs surrounding the Trinity serve to emphasize the horizontal extension of the pictorial visualization, which in turn provides rhythm, coherence, and unity. Completing the composition for an overall symmetrical design are the child Sudhana who comes to Manjushri on the quest for enlightenment, a female worshiper in a posture of piety with the coming of Samantabhadra, and the respective attendants of the two bodhisattvas (the herders of the lion- and elephant-vehicles, who are often depicted in foreign attire and physiognomy).

Although the iconography of the Trinity and of Sudhana’s pilgrimage to seek the bodhisattva conduct is based on the Flower Garland Sutra (Avatamsaka Sutra), this Yuan triptych is most likely inspired by the Lotus Sutra (Saddharma-pundarika Sutra), a text central to the Tiantai sect that revived during the early Song. Collectively, the three hanging scrolls form an overall scene to represent Shaka’s sermon in the air—that is, the subject of Buddha’s preaching of the Lotus Sutra at the Vulture Peak in Rajgriha, India. Another indication of the use of the Lotus Sutra as the scriptural source is the scene of Samantabhadra appearing before the female worshiper. According to the last chapter of the Lotus Sutra, “The Encouragement of Bodhisattva Samantabhadra” (Ch: Puxian pusa quanfapin), Buddha proclaims that good men and good women will be entrusted with the sacred scriptures. The teaching affirms that attainment of Buddhahood or enlightenment is a possibility open to all people, including female devotees. This makes Samantabhadra “a patron saint of women,” as remarked by former Cleveland curator Wai-kam Ho.4 

The aesthetic merit of the work calls to mind both physical beauty and spiritual devotion. With fine outlines in ink and reddish-brown, white, and gold pigments, as well as elegant coloring with subtle shading and modeling, the delicacy and refinement mark the aesthetic sense of the aristocracy and the power of the religious establishments supporting the art. At the same time, the sinuous curves, exquisite ornamentation, and flowing movement create a splendid and sensuous space that ultimately serves to foster devout faith. The technique of color reinforcement on the reverse side of the silk, together with the surface coloring, enhance the tonal modulation and the depth of color for a subtle, brilliant effect. 

Compared with other extant Yuan triptychs or comparable Japanese examples following the Chinese prototypes—in which the painted icons typically occupy most of the pictorial surface—this set is rather unusual in its incorporation of other figures and narrative details to create an overall symmetrical design. In developing the iconography, a subtle change in aesthetic sensibilities is especially reflected in the representation of an airy spatial setting to illustrate Shaka’s sermon in the sky. The fleeting clouds and the emerging lion and elephant impart a sense of dynamic movement to break away from a conventional static composition.

The variations from the standard compositional formula suggest the use of prints—a medium most suitable for illustrating and propagating the teachings of the sutra—as an additional source of pictorial reference. For example, the placement of the cloud motifs above the Shaka Trinity and the incorporation of the bodhisatt-vas’ attendants and the female figure in the composition are very similar to the treatment in two of the Northern Song woodblock prints kept in the interior of the wooden Shakyamuni statue enshrined at the Seiryo¯-ji temple in Kyoto.  


Color reinforcement

Color reinforcement painting on the reverse side of the silk enhances the tonal modulation and depth of the surface for a subtle, brilliant effect. 


An inscription in gold pigment appears at the bottom of the central scroll, reading “Fuzhou prefecture of the great Song.”  Despite the mention of “the great Song” in the inscription, pictorial evidence points to a Yuan date of execution, although it is not entirely impossible that the set was based on a Southern Song (1127–1279) prototype. The indication of Fuzhou prefecture in Fujian province as the place of origin, coupled with the Japanese provenance history of this triptych,5 is noteworthy. It is reported that the triptych was long ago brought to Japan and was formerly in the collection of the Enman-in temple located within the Onjo¯-ji (Miidera) temple in O¯tsu, Shiga prefecture—the headquarters of the Jimon sect of Tendai Buddhism in Japan. We do not know when the paintings entered the Enman-in collection, but the 1888 (Meiji 21) official survey of the ancient art treasures preserved in the Shiga prefecture conducted by the art-historians Ernest Francisco Fenollosa (1853–1908) and Okakura Tenshin (1862–1913) records a Buddha Triad (a set of three hanging scrolls) in the Enman-in collection.6 Could the present triptych be the same set of work seen and documented by Fenollosa and Tenshin? With no image reproduction or dimensions in their report for cross-reference, it is difficult to verify. But the rarity of this type of painting (a complete triptych), especially in the context of a temple collection, suggests a high likelihood. Furthermore, the fact that it came from Fuzhou makes it a significant artifact to supplement the large corpus of Ningpo Buddhist paintings (many of which eventually entered Japanese collections) that points to a more complex interregional Buddhist network in southern China during the Song and Yuan.7 Future research on Fuzhou as a gateway for pilgrim-monks from Japan to Yuan China may yield new insights into the significance of the Cleveland triptych in terms of the export of Chinese Buddhist paintings into Japan. 




1 For a 10th-century example of the triad, see Eight Dynasties of Chinese Painting: The Collections of the Nelson Gallery-Atkin Museums, Kansas City, and the Cleveland Museum of Art (Cleveland: Cleveland Museum of Art, 1980), 10. 

2 Ibid., 60–63.

3 Sherman E. Lee and Wai-kam Ho, Chinese Art under the Mongols: The Yuan Dynasty (1279–1368)(Cleveland: Cleveland Museum of Art, 1968), no. 194. 

4 See Wai-kam Ho’s entry on the Cleveland Samantabhadrain Eight Dynasties of Chinese Painting, 60–63.

5 The set of paintings was included in special exhibitions in Japan; see the exhibition catalogues SoGen no Bijutsu(Art of the Song and Yuan dynasties)   (Tokyo: Heibonsha, 1980), pl. 300; and SoGen butsuga: kaikan 40-shonen kinen tokubetsuten (Buddhist paintings of Song and Yuan dynasties: 40th anniversary special exhibition) (Yokohama: Kanagawa Kenritsu Rekishi Hakubutsukan, 2007), 38, pl. 5.

6 Shiga Kenritsu Biwako Bunkakan, ed., Fenorosa, Tenshin no mita O¯mi: Meiji 21-nen rinji zenkoku ho¯motsu cho¯sa kara (Works seen by Fenollosa and Tenshin in O¯mi: Meiji 21 [1888] temporary survey of the nation’s treasures) (O¯tsu: Shiga Kenritsu Biwako Bunkakan, 2004), 95.

7 See the exhibition catalogue Seichi Ninpo¯: Nihon Bukkyo 1300-nen no genryu¯ (Sacred Ningbo¯: Gateway to 1300 years of Japanese Buddhism) (Nara: Nara Kokuritsu Hakubutsukan, 2009). Also see Yukio Lippit, “Ningbo Buddhist Painting: A Reassessment,” Orientations 40, no. 5 (June 2009): 54–62.


Cleveland Art, July/August 2010