An optical study of the Taima Mandala (the Mandala “Imprint on Paper” & the “Backboard” Mandala)

Study and photography of Taima-dera Temple’s “Backboard” Mandala

 The Taima Mandala is a pictorial depiction of Japanese Pure Land Buddhism showing primarily the Pure Land Paradise of Amida based on the Commentary on the Meditation Sutra by the monk Shandao from Tang Dynasty China. The work has been passed down by the Taima-dera Temple in Nara, leading to its name. The work is massive, extending more than 4 meters in width and height. Scenes in the mandala are depicted by weaving, i.e. figured brocade, rather than pictures painted on silk canvas, as was normally the case. A recent view has posited that the work may have been produced in Tang Dynasty China in the 8th century. Nevertheless, the work has unquestionably deteriorated over a span of 1200–1300 years. The state and extent of the original figured brocade that remained had not been fully ascertained. The Institute’s Department of Art Research, Archives, and Information Systems conducted a joint research project on the mandala with the Nara National Museum last year when the museum hosted a special exhibition entitled Taima-dera Temple.
 The Taima Mandala was kept affixed to the back of a board in a miniature shrine atop a dais in the mandala hall of Taima-dera Temple. However, the mandala had severely deteriorated by the Edo Period, so paper was placed on top, water was applied, and the fabric of the mandala was detached to that it could be refashioned into a hanging scroll. This hanging scroll was studied last December. Some of the fabric remaining on paper that was used to detach the mandala during the Edo Period has been kept by Saikou Temple in Kyoto as the Mandala “Imprint on Paper.” The remaining woven fabric that has not peeled away from its original backing, known as the “Backboard” Mandala, has survived. Together with the Nara National Museum, SHIRONO Seiji and SARAI Mai performed high-resolution imaging of the Mandala “Imprint on Paper” at the Department of Art Research, Archives, and Information Systems on May 28 of last year. On May 29, SHIRONO Seiji and KOBAYASHI Tatsuro participated in a study involving macro-photography of the “Backboard” Mandala in Taima-dera Temple’s mandala hall. Portions of the original figured brocade on the Mandala “Imprint on Paper” were not readily discernible, but the fabric itself was found to remain. Because of the physical constraints on site, the scope of the study of the “Backboard” Mandala was somewhat limited, but the original figured brocade was found to have survived. The Taima Mandala was poorly understood, but the current study has helped to ascertain its true state.

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