Word Embodied: Entangled Icons in Medieval Japanese Buddhist Art
Paper by Halle O’Neal
Given at Stanford University, on May 30, 2019
Abstract: My project on the Japanese jeweled pagoda mandalas reveals the entangled realms of relics, reliquaries, and Buddhist scripture engendered through intricate interactions of word and image. The twelfth- and thirteenth-century mandalas use precisely choreographed characters from sutras rather than architectural line to compose the central icon of a pagoda. Surrounding this textual image, narrative vignettes pictorialize the content of the scriptures.
This talk delves into the materiality of the objects and the dynamic viewing encouraged by such rich surfaces by using a digital animation to map how the textual characters construct the pagoda. Doing so uncovers alternative functions for written word that has jettisoned its exegetical purpose as well as the performative engagement that the paintings require of the viewer. These movements dictated by the surface encourage viewers to experientially constitute the resolution and dissolution of the various instantiations of Buddha body into one. Such a performance enables the concepts of sutra, relic, dharma, body, and pagoda to exist in a fluid and constantly interchanging visual relationship.
This examination of the mandalas, therefore, recovers crucial underlying dynamics of Japanese Buddhist art, including invisibility, performative viewing, and the spectacular visualizations of embodiment.
Top Image: Detail from the Jeweled pagoda mandala, Sovereign Kings of the Golden Light Sutra, Heian period, 12th century