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'Fateful encounter': 2 Buddhist figures might be 1,300-year-old separated Japanese pair

The privately owned figure of Mahasthamaprapta, left, and the Kannon figure owned by Shinkoji Temple are seen in this image provided by Otsu City Museum of History.

OTSU -- A pair of Buddhist figures -- one kept in this west Japan city and the other in Tokyo -- are likely to be of the same provenance, made for display together about 1,300 years ago, a local museum has announced.

    The two pieces are a privately owned figure of Mahasthamaprapta and a bronze figure of the Bodhisattva Kannon owned by the city of Otsu's Shinkoji Temple. The latter is registered as an Important Cultural Property and is believed to date back to the turn of the eighth century. Otsu City Museum of History said on June 9 it is highly likely the figures are a pair.

    The similar characteristics of the works, and the metals used in them, suggest they were made in the same workshop. Although the specific histories of both figures are unknown, they were apparently intended to flank each side of an Amitabha statue.

    "There's a possibility they were originally made as one set of Buddhist figures. This is a fateful encounter after 1,300 years," a museum representative said.

    According to the museum, both figures are standing; the Kannon is 27.2 centimeters high, while the Mahasthamaprapta stands 26.8 cm tall. Among their very similar features are their topknot hairstyles; their crowns with decorations on the front, left and right sides; their pulled-back upper body posture and slightly protruding abdomens; and their skirt-like clothing known as "kun."

    Examination of the figures' materials with fluorescent X-rays showed both consist of about 96% bronze, along with similar values of tin, arsenic, iron and lead. The figures appear to be covered in gold leaf.

    The back of the heads of the privately owned figure of Mahasthamaprapta, left, and the Kannon owned by Shinkoji Temple are seen. The high topknots, the V-shaped hair and other features are strikingly similar. (Image provided by Otsu City Museum of History)

    Their slim faces and youthful figures appear to be influenced by aesthetic values from the early Tang dynasty, and the museum says the statuettes' characteristics and depictions suggest they were made around 710, when the ancient capital was moved to Heijo-kyo in what is now Nara City, west Japan.

    Because the components of the material are also similar, it is thought that the figures were made in the same workshop in Japan. The central Amitabha statue that the figures were likely made to accompany would probably have been seated, as was the contemporary trend, but its whereabouts is unknown.

    Shinkoji Temple is a temple of the Tendai Buddhist school built between the latter half of the Muromachi period (1336-1573) and the beginning of the Edo period (1603-1867). The Kannon figure stood alone at the temple.

    In 2008, the figure was entrusted to the Otsu City Museum of History, and in 2014 it was registered as an Important Cultural Property. At the end of March this year, an individual living in Tokyo came forward to tell the museum that a statue of Mahasthamaprapta they owned greatly resembled the Kannon one. From there, the investigation began.

    The origins of both figures are unknown, and where they were initially kept and when they were separated is also a mystery.

    Norihito Terashima, curator at the museum, said, "Shinkoji Temple is located at the foot of Mount Hiei, and in its vicinity there have been temples, including the Sakamoto temple ruins, dating as far back as the seventh century.

    "At around the same period a gilt bronze Buddha statue was brought from overseas to Mount Hiei's Enryakuji Temple; the Buddhist figures from this case were made in this area, so it wouldn't be out of place if they had been enshrined here."

    (Japanese original by Manabu Niwata, Otsu Bureau)

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