Getting the Murals to the Museum

May 10, 2014

It’s important to understand how an object actually comes into the museum. The Buddhist murals in the Rotunda are comprised of many different sized panels which entered the museum in stages.  The mural depicting Tejaprabha Buddha came into the museum incomplete in 1926.  You can see the panels are actually framed in large wooden borders showing that some parts of the complete image are missing:

C492 - 1926
Tejaprabha mural showing the three main sections from 1926

It is not until 1929 that the rest of the mural arrives at the museum and is installed with the other sections thus completing the image.  Since each section came in as a separate object, they each have different object numbers.  These are:  C492, C493,C494, C495 and C692.  To complicate matters more, C692 is actually two sections.

C492 with accession numbers

This is important to note because we may not actually have the entire mural.  Therefore any analysis of what is actually depicted and the significance of the number of deities represented and who they represent should be approached with caution. Indeed when this mural came into the museum the central Buddha was believed to be Sakyamuni, the historical Buddha, not  Tejaprabha, with Guanyin to his right (note the Amitabha Buddha in the headdress) and Maitreya to his left.  The murals didn’t come into the museum with a label attached to them explaining the meaning behind each figure.  The curator at the time Helen E. Fernald, needed to start working out what she was seeing, not only with everything cut into pieces but without the entire mural present.  It is actually reasonable to think this is Sakyamuni because he is sometimes seen as a triad with Guanyin and Maitreya.  The surrounding figures were thought to be Taoist Moon and Sun gods, not unreasonable given some of the syncretism between Taoism and Buddhism and the iconography of the headdresses.  The correct identification of the Buddha and his surrounding deities came a few years later.  It will take an entire post to unpack that story.