This painting depicts the scene of the Buddha’s death in Kushinagar, India. The body of the Buddha is lying on a dais surrounded by sal trees, with bodhisattvas, disciples, and animals grieving his death. The Hiranyavati River flows in the background, and we see Queen Maya rushing down from Trayastrimsa, the world of Devas, at the top of the painting. A full moon hangs in the sky behind her, indicating that the Buddha had passed away on the fifteenth night of the second month.
Nirvana is named for its subject matter: the nirvana of the Buddha, which he attained upon death. Like most nirvana paintings made in and after the Kamakura period, this work is in portrait orientation, and features numerous figures and animals around him. At the same time, it is unique as it depicts him with his eyes open, and contains unusual motifs such as the bees flying around the khakkhara staff on the left. Similar works of various sizes dating from the late Kamakura period can also be found in the collections of the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, among other museums. At an impressive height of close to three meters, however, this particular work far surpasses them in not just scale, but also quality, with every inch of it as elaborate as the last. From the gold paste and bold colors used on the figures’ attires, to the masterful shading of various motifs, one can see the care that the artist had put into rendering even the finest details.
This painting used to come with a colophon attached to its back (now stored separately), indicating that it was painted by Myōson upon being commissioned by Gyōse, a nun of the Hokkeji Temple in Nara, and offered during a devotional rite in 1323. Myōson was a Buddhist painter based in the Kōfukuji Temple in Nara, belonging to the temple’s atelier (later named the Matsunanza) founded in the Kamakura period by Sonchi, a Buddhist painter before him. Two of his most famous works that still remain today include Nirvana (1325), painted for the Myōhōji Temple in Hyōgo, and a cabinet painting of the goddess Mahashri (1340), currently installed in the main hall of Kōfukuji. While all three of these works feature traditional depictions of the Buddha in vivid colors, the Nirvana painting of 1323 features exceptional execution, making it possibly Myōson’s magnum opus, and a representative work of the Kamakura period.