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Death of the historical Buddha.

About the Artwork

This large, brightly colored painting shows a Japanese illustration of the death of Shakyamuni Buddha, the fifth-century ac founder of Buddhism. According to ancient texts writ ten in India, the Buddha's homeland, Shakyamuni (the historical Buddha) died in a flowering garden at the age of eighty. He is shown here at the moment of his death, surrounded by devotees who mourn his passing. The degree to which they express grief reveals each being's level of ignorance, showing that they do not understand that Shakyamuni is in fact about to achieve his ultimate goal of entering nirvana and achieving release from the painful cycle of rebirth. Only the enlightened bodhisattvas, Buddhist savior figures, remain serene.

Buddhist temples today still hang paintings like this on the anniversary of Shakyamuni's death in late spring. In part, this practice is meant to commemorate the great teacher's passing. More importantly however, it serves to remind the faithful of their own impending deaths and to inspire them to redouble their religious practice. The large size of this hanging scroll is well-suited for display in a public setting.

A Closer Look

While scenes of the Buddha's death are produced in all parts of the Buddhist world and follow the iconography established in scriptures, their different appearances reflect the culture and period in which each was made. This composition, for instance, is typical of East Asian paintings, as it is made of water-based mineral and vegetal pigments, gold, and ink on silk and mounted as a hanging scroll that can be rolled up and stored away. The artist, whose identity is unknown, probably worked in a workshop attached to one or more temples in the capital of Kyoto.

Looking at this painting, one is immediately drawn to the golden-skinned Buddha lying on his right side, his large size and central position symbolizing his importance. Animals, demons, gods, and humans encircle him, representing the different levels of existence. The most ignorant beings--the animals and demons--occupy the bottom of the composition and dramatically writhe and wail with grief, capturing the viewer's attention. This emphasis on depicting emotions, particularly sad ones, is a distinctive feature of Japanese paintings and literature. The viewer is drawn into the painting as he or she recognizes and empathizes with the emotion-filled drama played out in this scene.

In East Asian art, nature plays a crucial role, and in Japanese paintings the natural elements often echo the sentiments of the people. Here the sala trees lose their blossoms and bright spring colors, heightening the sorrowful mood. In the upper-right corner, Shakyamuni's mother, who died when he was still a child, descends from the heavens to witness her son's death. She is shown as a Japanese aristocratic lady, dressed in elegant robes. Repeating a gesture that can be found in illustrations of such courtly classics as The Tale of Genii, Queen Maya expresses her sadness by holding her sleeves to hide her weeping face. Through these devices the event that occurred a thousand years earlier in northern India is transformed into a dramatic scene of Japanese fourteenth-century narrative art.


Ford, Barbara Brennan. "The Arts of Japan," The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Summer 1987.

Hammer, Elizabeth. The Paths Dreams Take: Japanese Art from the Collections of Mary Griggs Burke and The Metropolitan Museum of Art. (CD-ROM). New York: the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000

Mason, Penelope E. History of Japanese Art. Donald Dinwiddie, revising author, 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2004.


The Metropolitan Museum's Timeline of Art History presents this and other works from the museum's permanent collection, along with useful information. A special topic page provides an illustrated biography of Shakyamuni.

Classroom Activities


Ask students to carefully examine and describe the emotions of the various animals, humans, demons, and deities depicted. What might each be saying or thinking? What feelings do the students have in response? How would the effect be different if all the figures in the composition were shown sitting quietly with little expression?

Middle School

Have students consider the narrative aspects of the scene and describe what the various figures are doing. Write a dramatization with dialogue to accompany this image. Look again at the painting and identify and describe the aspects that are purely decorative. What sort of aesthetic sensibility does the artist create?

High School

Using the museum's online Timeline of Art History (see Web link), compare this painting with Buddhist devotional images made in other countries. Describe how the materials and artistic preferences differ. Now compare this painting with other works of art made in Japan about the same time. How are they similar? Try to identify which elements of the painting are Buddhist and which are Japanese.

Elizabeth Hammer, associate museum educator, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Ms. Hammer specializes in East Asian art.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Looking and Learning
Author:Hammer, Elizabeth
Publication:School Arts
Geographic Code:9JAPA
Date:Jan 1, 2007
Previous Article:Online resources for interpreting art.
Next Article:Philip Stanhope Worsley.

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