Science and art on view at the Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery

Copyright Freer|Sackler

WASHINGTON DC - The only existing sixth- and
seventh-century Chinese lacquer Buddha
sculptures have come together for the first time
in the exhibition “Secrets of the Lacquer
Buddha” at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler
Gallery, which opened last December.
Modern technology and scientific analysis
have revealed how these extremely rare life-sized
Chinese Buddha sculptures were created and
what they are made of. These new insights offer
a deeper historical understanding of the three
Buddha sculptures: one from the Freer Gallery of
Art, one from the Walters Art Museum in
Baltimore and one from the Metropolitan
Museum of Art in New York City. The exhibition
explores the methods and ancient process of
making sculptures in lacquer, a resin from native
trees of northeast Asia.
The Freer|Sackler’s Department of
Conservation and Scientific Research used
specialised equipment and new methods to
analyse the sculptures, exposing microscopic
details. X-radiography and computerised
tomography scans explored details hidden to the
human eye. X-ray fluorescence analysis examined
the eyes, and the scanning electron microscope
was used to study bone particles mixed into the
lacquer. Newly developed methods were used to
study unusual organic materials in the lacquer
layers. With each method, insights were gained
that open up a new understanding of the lacquer
process used in sixth- and seventh-century AD