Daily Art Moment: Tōdaiji Scriptorium

A photograph of a rectangular scroll composed of horizontal bands. Brown bands, top and bottom, appear to be of woven cloth, the top band composing about a third of the overall work. The bottom band is half the top’s width. At center is the indigo band with 56 rows of silver inked calligraphy sandwiched between the mottled metallic foil bands. At the very top are two loops for hanging and at bottom a dowel can be seen at the scroll’s edge.

“The Avatamsaka (or Flower Garland) sutra is one of the best-known texts of Mahayana Buddhism in East Asia, describing a radiant, mystical universe of infinite realms. This fragment was created in the 740s as part of a set of sixty scrolls of the Avatamsaka sutra for Tōdaiji, the Great Eastern Temple of Nara. Elegantly calligraphed in Chinese characters in silver ink on indigo-dyed paper, the sutra was housed at the Nigatsudō Hall of Tōdaiji. The building caught fire in 1667, damaging the scrolls. Surviving fragments like this have become known as the yakegyō, or ‘burnt sutras.’ Many turned a rusty, sienna red along their salvaged lower edge— visible traces of the heat of the flames. This particular fragment was remounted as a hanging scroll by the contemporary artist Sugimoto Hiroshi (b. 1948). Backed with fresh sheets of indigo paper and banded above and below with metallic foil, the new mounting responds sympathetically to the burnt sutra’s current form as a material text and a work of art.”

Jeannie Kenmotsu, Japan Foundation Associate Curator of Japanese Art & Interim Head of Asian Art

Rectangular detail of the central section of the scroll showing a wide, deep blue or indigo band running from side to side containing 28 rows of calligraphy characters in silver ink. The inked characters line up uniformly along the top of the rows but at the bottom the characters become jagged and uneven and the deep blue turns to a rusty brown. Two bands of mottled bluish-gray, taupe and cream metallic foil run horizontally along the top and bottom of the calligraphy.
Further detail of the indigo portion of the scrolls showing 7 rows of silver calligraphy characters focusing on the rusty, burnt portion.

Tōdaiji Scriptorium, Section of the Avatamsaka Sutra: the Nigatsudō Burnt Sutra, 744. Handscroll fragment mounted as a hanging scroll; silver ink on indigo-dyed paper. Gift of Mary and Cheney Cowles, 2018.76.1, public domain

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