Buddha, the golden legend

- through Henry Oudin

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The exhibition "Buddha, the golden legend", which has just opened at the National Museum of Asian Arts-Guimet, aims to show how the legend has gradually taken over the biographical data scattered in the sutras to lead to more coherent stories. , but imbued with marvels, which were to be an inexhaustible source of inspiration for artists. Very educational without being simplistic or reductive, the exhibition allows visitors familiar with the subject as well as neophytes to find their account.

A first space, very airy, offers chronological and geographical landmarks on the doctrinal developments and the geographical expansion of Buddhism. The purpose of the exhibition is summarized there through two key works. The large Tibetan scroll given to the museum by the collector CT Loo in 1929 recounts the episodes of the life of the Buddha, from his penultimate existence in the Heaven of Contents to the sharing of relics. Scenes corresponding to events occurring after the Sarnath sermon are given only minor importance in this painting, the authors of which seem to have relied on the text of the Lalitavistara. The most beautiful Maravijaya Buddha in Thai collections is a counterpart to this famous Tibetan painting. From the Sukhothai school and dated from the XNUMXth century, this piece, which depicts the Buddha taking the Earth to witness during the Mara assaults, illustrates an iconography particularly prized in Southeast Asia.

In the footsteps of the Buddha

After an evocation of previous existences, the layout of the exhibition, clear and didactic, follows the various stages of the life of the Buddha, from his birth and the wonders that surround him at the great extinction (Mahaparinirvana), detailing the significant episodes of his youth, then the Four Encounters which led him to renunciation and then to Awakening, as well as the defining moments of his “public” life. A rich selection of works of various dates and origins is organized around the famous xylographed thankas of the suite brought back from Tibet by Jacques Bacot, explorer and Tibetologist, at the beginning of the XNUMXth century.

Two incises in this journey approach the bases of the iconography of the Buddha and, a little further, the formation of the monastic community with a choice of works evoking the figure of the arhat, from India to the Chinese world. This last section presents several works that the public can discover for the first time: Japanese paintings on the theme of the 16 arhats, attributed to Kano Kazunobu and brought back from Japan by Émile Guimet himself in 1876, or the three Chinese arhats in porcelain undoubtedly corresponding to an imperial order of the XNUMXth century. There are also several kesas (liturgical vestments of Japanese Buddhism) which their fragility does not allow to be exhibited on a regular basis.

A Khmer painting dating from the XNUMXth century was apparently part of the cabinet of curiosities at the Palace of Versailles, whose precious objects were used for the education of the children of Louis XVI.

The exhibition closes with an impressive collection of representations of the Buddha, from all sources and from all periods, illustrating the extraordinary diversity of the image of the Blessed.

An ascetic Buddha in response to the 2011 earthquake

The exhibited works almost all belong to the permanent collections of the museum. Loyal visitors will therefore find, presented in a different light, objects that are familiar to them. Nevertheless, a significant number of pieces have been taken out of storage for the occasion, and where necessary specially restored. Some recent acquisitions, purchases or donations are also visible for the first time. This is the case with a contemporary Japanese work by Japanese sculptor Takahiro Kondo. Deeply marked by the tragic earthquake of 2011, the artist responds to the disaster with this ceramic work, executed from a cast made on his own body. In an easily recognizable yogi posture, the figure could evoke the silhouette of the ascetic Buddha. Simultaneously an image of life and death, positioned in the exhibition where one might have wished – ideally, the magnificent ascetic Buddha in the Lahore museum – this work, although not directly representing the Blessed , has its place in an evocation of the life of the Buddha.

From Louis XVI to the Manchu sovereigns

Two exceptional loans were granted. A Khmer painting dating from the XNUMXth century – exceptionally old for a work on textiles from a country with a tropical climate – belongs to the collections of the Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac museum. It depicts a theme dear to Southeast Asia: the ten great jâtakas illustrating the ten perfections that every practitioner, like the future Buddha, should ideally apply. In addition to its iconographic interest, this piece also presents the particularity of having arrived in France very early, since it was part, it seems, of the cabinet of curiosities of the Palace of Versailles, whose precious objects were used for education. children of Louis XVI. For its part, the Chinese museum of the Empress Eugénie of the Château de Fontainebleau lent an impressive stupa in gilded copper and encrusted with turquoises dating from the middle of the XNUMXth century. The sophistication of this spectacular piece suggests that it was an imperial commission, possibly from the Qianlong Emperor himself. The Manchu rulers indeed sponsored Tibetan Buddhism.

We will be careful not to forget that Émile Guimet, founder of the institution which has now become the National Museum of Asian Arts, originally had the project of a museum of religions in which Buddhism occupied a place of choice. This exhibition devoted to the life of the Buddha, which had been in the making for several years, is therefore fully justified within its walls. Take advantage of the summer months to discover it

photo of author

Henry Oudin

Henry Oudin is a Buddhist scholar, spiritual adventurer and journalist. He is a passionate seeker of the depths of Buddhist wisdom, and travels regularly to learn more about Buddhism and spiritual cultures. By sharing his knowledge and life experiences on Buddhist News, Henry hopes to inspire others to embrace more spiritual and mindful ways of living.

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