National TreasureSutra Box with Lotus Arabesques

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  • Lacquered leather in makie
  • length 31.8cm width 17.6cm height 12.1cm
  • Heian period, 12th century
  • Nara National Museum
  • 646(工122)

This sutra box, dated to the late Heian period (794-1185), was originally kept at Jingû-ji Temple in Obama, Wakasa Province (present-day Fukui Prefecture). The box is made of leather coated with lacquer to produce a hard finish. The entire outer surface of the box and lid was sprinkled lightly with gold powder, creating a ground-pattern effect called heijinji, after which they were decorated with designs of lotus arabesques and butterflies in makie (metal powder or flakes sprinkled on lacquer). The gold powder of the heijinji ground on the interior of the lid is sparsely scattered compared to the exterior, providing a simple backdrop for a multitude of butterflies. The lotus blossoms are depicted in both the uchimaki technique, in which the area sprinkled with metallic powder is clearly outlined, and the makiwake technique, in which the patterned areas are distinguished by using metallic flakes of different colors or sizes. The decoration includes several types of gold and a bluish alloy of gold and silver (J. aokin), resulting in a variety of hues that create an efflorescent effect. On two sides of the box are fitted metal cord holders in the shape of a four-petalled flower. In the center of each petal is an openwork design composed of a pair of leaves arranged in a flower-like configuration (J. taiyôka mon). Such delicate details are superb examples of the highly refined and skillfully executed technical qualities of this box. The designs of the lotus arabesques and butterflies symbolize the Buddhist Pure Land and their understated elegance makes them suitable decoration for the container of Buddhist sutras.

This is the only extant sutra box made of lacquered leather (J. shippi) that dates from the late Heian period. However, there are more than forty objects using this technique among the Shôsô-in Treasures of Tôdai-ji Temple, as well as other examples preserved in the collection of Tô-ji (Kyôôgokoku-ji) Temple in Kyoto. The technique of lacquering leather flourished during the Nara period (710-794), though its use gradually diminished after the late Heian period. Very few objects made of lacquered leather are decorated overall with makie, as is the case here, making this sutra box an especially important example among extant lacquered leather boxes.