Reading The Late Heian Buddhist Iconography

As a popular religion started in India and grew exponentially in China and Korea within the next a thousand years, Buddhism reached to Japan in 552 A.D. Many religious icons, like Buddha and Bodhisattva, had a strong Chinese influence in their styles and details initially. Throughout the years of social changes and cultural development, the Japanese artists gradually amplified and developed the unique Buddhist images, creating one of the world’s great traditions of religious sculpture. In their book How to Look at Japanese Art, Addiss and Seo addressed the problem of depicting the Buddha and other icons, which “[has] many possible ways to portray a god that artists had to consider.” In Buddhist sculpture and painting, the depiction must follow the beliefs of the sect and the purpose of the image. Thus, the scholars found that the development of the religion and its icons followed the political and social changes within the Japanese islands. This statement was proven with the funding of Amida Buddha Buddhism in1052 – as the change of the depiction is closely related to its new needs of close personal relationship with the deity. This paper offers a visual analysis of a Buddha's head (see Figure 1) and a Bodhisattva (see Figure 3) head exhibited at the Harvard Art Museum, comparing and contrasting in which ways their forms, styles, and materials promoted the teaching of Amida Buddha Buddhism.  

It is important to understand both heads in its original context. According to the museum captions, the two heads are from roughly late Heian period and the bodies of each head resided in separate places from their heads. In Amida Buddhism, the individual’s relationship to the deity is the most important; therefore the icons were intended to convey the personal experience of the prayer with them by depicting the deity in the human size, aiming to guide the prayer visualizing the experience of entering paradise after a long spiritual and physical pilgrimage. According to the teaching, there would have been 1000 years of perfect peace, then 1000 years of declines, and lastly 1000 years of chaos – the idea of mappō (total lawlessness) – after the death of the Shaka. Coincidentally, 1052 A.D. was the year in which the mappō started and the society in Japan was chaotic due to the civil wars. This created the conditions and needs for the Amida Buddhism to be founded and grew popularized as a new branch of the religion. It was regarded as saving people and guiding them to reach enlightenment; and according to the teaching, a belief in the religion and chanting the nenbutsu were enough. This more welcoming characteristic of the belief was significantly different from the previous periods and created a more approachable imagery of the deity; thus, Amida Buddhism shifted from the depiction of icons to a more naturalistic and human-like style.  

The artists commonly combined the local styles and characteristics with the universal appeal of the Buddhist deity; thus, the Buddhist images are distinctive and easy to identify. The Buddha’s head was obvious because it had all the characteristics of a typical Shaka: his long earlobes show that he was born a prince, for royal children wore heavy earrings in India; the protuberance on his head indicates expanded consciousness, and his hair is stylized into snail-shell curls that resemble his real hair. In addition, the linear and elongated eyes were looking downwards, directing his gaze away from the direct confrontation with the worshipers. The peaceful smile on the face created a calm and meditative effect on the viewers. Bodhisattvas had more variety in styles because unlike Buddha who was a specific human before reaching enlightenment, Bodhisattvas were not real people. However, as the manifestations of the Buddha, artists imagined them had the similar qualities as the Shaka. Here, the Bodhisattva also has the typical iconography characteristics – heavy hairdo on the top of the head, elongated ears and rich folds on the neck. These elements depicted the Bodhisattva as a princely figure, alluding to the historical Buddha’s life as a prince before he renounced his kingdom without the wisdom protuberance. 

The two heads are prominent in the volumetric and three-dimensional quality that emphasized the solid presence and sensuality of them. The rounded and robust face has a Tang influence in China. Although trying to engage the viewers, the style of the two images was not fully naturalistic, since a number of simplifications have been made in order to express the spiritual presence of the enlightened icons. But the anonymous sculptor worked so beautifully in his difficult medium that we seem to come face-to-face. The rounded heads of both of the icons were taken from the Exotic period when the depiction moved away from the early period’s oval shape to a shape that welcomed the viewers to walk around it. This shows the preservation of the traditions from the previous periods and the progression of depictions of the iconography’s head. 

The form of representing is pivotal to create the engaging environment for the viewers to have a close personal relationship with the icons. Complying with the new religion, the depiction of the Buddha and Bodhisattva here exhibited in the museum were not large in the scale, instead, the size of them suggested that they might be placed in a small prayer room where the monks could have a close look at the icons. Buddha’s head has a strong frontal presentation as the head is heavily situated on the presentation cabinet facing the audience. However, the viewer is also welcomed to look at the Buddha from the sides, as the sides are both depicting delicate details. The curly hair covered its full head of the sculpture and the curve at the back neck is prominent and naturalistic, showing meticulous nature of the Heian period. 

According to Mason, “Bodhisattva are great beings that have achieved Enlightenment but have resolved not to enter nirvana until every last being has achieved that same state.” The goal of Bodhisattva is to help people reach enlightenment; thus, it is important to have an approachable quality, engaging with the prayers and guiding them to the right path. Here, the Bodhisattva has a typical rounded face, tilting towards its left side with the half-closed eyes looking downward. However, the slight twisted head, showing a prominent Chinese influence in depicting the poses of a Bodhisattvas, added more animation to the icon, presenting viewers the more human-like quality. The sculpture also had the similar details at the sides and back of the head, emphasizing the three-dimensionality of the icon. As the viewer moved to the sides of the images, s/he would find the naturalistic rendering of the popping-out eyebrows, eyes, noses, and mouths. Thus, having the form and styles working together, the artists were creating the new norm of iconography for the Amida Buddhism. 

The chosen materials used to depict the icons presented a more approachable and friendly deity of belief. Based upon the patterns of wood on the nose of the Buddha and on the forehead of the Bodhisattva, it was obvious to identify the materials those objects were sculpted in. Wood was not an expensive and luxurious material and the heads showed no advanced craftsmanship but symmetrical, simple, and common design. This reflected the modest desire of the Amida Buddhism that emphasized the spiritual devotion to the religion. As the viewer came approached closer to the exhibition cabinet, s/he would feel a sense of life and warmth from the Buddha, crediting partly due to the use of wood as the material for sculpturing.  Quoted from Addiss and Seo, wood was a natural material that adds a subtle sense of texture to the image. Here, the light, coming from the front of the Buddha, casted natural bright around the center of the face and upper forehead and deep shadow around the checks and neck, because of the softly glowing quality of wood. Similarly, the Bodhisattva’s head was also sculpted in wood materials; however, the traces of polychromy used to paint the subject decreased the reflection of light casted onto the head. It also suggested the colorfulness of the original work with the paint coving the wood base, depicting a more realistic and solid being.

    The methods of displaying the work were also important in terms of understanding how would the icons be seen in the real temple in front of monks and prayers. The museum effortlessly situated the images next to each other to show the effect of viewing all sculptures together in reality. Even though the two sculptures were from different time and locations, the Bodhisattva’s head is smaller in scale comparing to the Buddha’s, indicating its lesser Buddhist rank. This careful position of the two heads (see Figure 5) resembled the real situations for them if they were placed together. Despite how deliberately the museum wished to help the audience understanding the sculptures better in their context, the difference in the style can cause inconsistency in viewing and the difference in scale sparked some confusion in understanding the position of the icons. Besides that, the viewer reflection onto the glass cage can sometimes create a hardship to read closely to the details of the images. As the viewer moved up, s/he will see a dominant hole at the top of the Buddha’s head (see Figure 4). In addition, the two small punched holes on the forehead and in the hair of the Buddha could had held jewelry or other kinds of decorations in them. This reminded the audience the long history of this image since it was created and the missing part of the body and decorations of the heads.  

The shift to a more naturalistic mode of representation during the late Heian period was not a coincidence or inevitable choice, but a rational and conscious choice by the artists to depict a more approachable icon that engaged the viewer individually and personally. What has most impressed viewers about these objects was their remarkable presences – the viewer could see both the outer form and the inner being of the icons through the sense of heaviness depicted in the form; the sense of not an otherworldly being but a real being in the style; and the sense of friendly and engaging in the choice of material. The religious artwork had a huge effect of shaping and forming the society and culture in Japan; at the same time, they were highly influenced by the developing of the Japanese society. Understanding the work of Buddhist iconography of the Amida Buddhism helped the viewers to grasp the gist of the late Heian culture better. 


Work Cited

Addiss, S., & Seo, Audrey Yoshiko. (1996). How to look at Japanese art. New York: Harry N. Abrams. 

Lecture 3: Early Buddhist Arts at Hōryūji class notes. Arts of Japan, AH 326. Boston University. Lectured by Dr. Alice Tsang. 

Lecture 6: Esoteric Buddhism and Amida Buddhism class notes. Arts of Japan, AH 326. Boston University. Lectured by Dr. Alice Tsang.

Mason, Penelope. History of Japanese Art. Pearson. 2005.



Figure 1: Head of a Buddha






Figure 2: Head of a Bodhisattva




Figure 3: Head of a Buddha side view


Figure 4: Hole in the Buddha’s Head 


Figure 5: The sculptures exhibited in the museum