Rebirth of an Amida Buddha: Conserving for DePauw University's Art Collection

From galleries and private collectors to all types of cultural institutions, we’re always in awe of the wide variety of fine art and heirloom objects that are brought to us for preservation. The Conservation Center recently had the privilege to conserve an Amida Buddha (ca. 1700–1899) from the Arthur E. Klauser '45 Asian and World Community Collection of DePauw University. Through the conservation process, we not only learned more about this magnificent object and the history behind it, but we were also proud to have contributed to an essential part of DePauw’s educational curriculum.

Pure Land Buddhism is a devotional sect of Buddhism in East Asia centering on the worship of Amida Buddha. According to the Pure Land Sutras, composed in India in the 2nd century, Amida Buddha vowed to save all sentient beings by granting them rebirth in his realm, the “Western Paradise.” This pure land endowed with miraculous characteristics ensured its inhabitants easy entry into nirvana and salvation from the impure land we now live in. Invoking the name of Amida Buddha with absolute faith in him could attain salvation. Those whom Amida Buddha especially wished to save are the sinful and impoverished humans. This even includes tengu and demons that have no other means of salvation. Thus, Pure Land Buddhism claims to be a genuine way of universal salvation.  

DePauw’s Amida Buddha arrived at The Center in such poor condition that it was deemed unsuitable for exhibition. The work sat loosely on its base, likely due to a failed previous attempt at treatment. There was flaking and lifting gesso throughout the surface with losses mostly at the mid to lower back, shoulders, and both sides ending at the top of the feet. The entirety of the gilt surface was covered in a dark residue that had resulted from the piece being dusty and dirty. But perhaps the most challenging part of the conservation process was repairing a hole on the left side of Buddha’s back.

The base of the piece was also in need of conservation. Half of the decorative leaves were chipped and there were dents and wear marks along the top edges of the mouldings. Additionally, there were abrasions and losses to the gilt surface, particularly along the edges of the lower tier. The whole of the base was covered in a particulate film.

After identifying these issues, The Center’s objects conservation team began by performing surface cleaning to the sculpture. This was done as carefully as possible on all sides to remove the particulate film and scattered accretions, as well as the dark residue—meanwhile, respecting and maintaining the age and patina of the piece. Afterwards, the areas of loose and lifting gesso and the gilding were consolidated using a reversible conservation adhesive. An appropriate barrier coating was applied to the areas of loss. Finally, the fractured feet were properly secured using a reversible conservation adhesive.

After the conservation process was complete and the Amida Buddha returned to DePauw, students of Assistant Art and Art History Professor Pauline Ota used it as the focal point of an assignment within her course, titled “The Supernatural in Japanese Visual Culture,” exploring this theme from the 7th century to the present. With its origins in religion, folklore, and literature, Professor Ota teaches how these themes have captured the imagination of the Japanese culture and consequently inspired creative visualizations of them.

Professor Ota explains in further detail the course curriculum: “This assignment had a couple of learning goals. First, my students were asked to curate a small-scale exhibition, experiencing each step in the curation process—from justifying a theme, to the selection of objects, to planning a layout, to reworking that layout within the exhibition space, to conducting research. Students also had to write and print labels, place objects and labels in the exhibition space, market the exhibition, and finally, welcome visitors to the exhibition with a short presentation. Second, I wanted them to incorporate what they had learned about Japanese religions, culture, and mythology and apply them towards the selection of an exhibition theme, as well as in the writing of the labels.”

The Conservation Center is pleased that the work we did on the Amida Buddha was able to support the education of students studying art, art history, and museum studies. Craig Hadley, Director and Curator of Exhibitions and University Collections at DePauw University, adds: “We’re absolutely thrilled with the final result of the Amida Buddha for our Asian Art collection. We have sent objects to The Conservation Center for almost three years now. Prior to the extensive treatment work performed on the Amida Buddha, we brought a series of 19th century Tibetan religious objects for examination and treatment. At the moment, we are having two additional Tibetan objects and a 16th century Japanese staff for a carved sculpture of Zocho-ten, Guardian of the South examined for treatment. The newly conserved pieces will no doubt ensure the quality of our collection, and complement DePauw’s art history courses for generations to come.”