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Jason Steuber, Lourdes Santamaría-Wheeler, and Allysa Browne Peyton

Jason Steuber
Cofrin Curator of Asian Art, Harn Museum of Art

Lourdes Santamaría-Wheeler
Museum & Special Projects Coordinator, Digital Library Center, University of Florida

Allysa Browne Peyton
Curatorial Associate of Asian Art, Harn Museum of Art

2012-2013 Library Enhancement Grant

A Library Enhancement Grant was awarded to the Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art to fund the digital preservation of a 17th-century Korean gilt-wood bodhisattva in the Harn collection. The bodhisattva is an enlightened figure in the Buddhist tradition. This particular sculpture represents a bodhisattva seated in a lotus position (paryankasana) with the right hand raised in a gesture of fearlessness (abhaya mudra) and the left hand resting on the knee in a gesture of gift-giving (varada mudra). Based on body posture and stylistic features, Dr. Unsok Song of Dongguk University, Korea, determined the bodhisattva was sculpted sometime between the 1650s and 1670s in southeastern Korea. This was a period of renaissance for Buddhist arts in Korea, following widespread destruction during the Japanese invasions of 1592-1598. Dr. Song has noted the exemplary character of this piece, concluding “the Harn Museum bodhisattva highlights the vigour and creative genius of the Buddhist monk-sculptors in this important epoch of Buddhist art in Korea.”

In an effort to learn more about the bodhisattva, the Asian art department of the Harn Museum joined with Shands HealthCare. Korean bodhisattvas were the objects of a unique ritual during which monks placed sacred Buddhist texts and artifacts inside a newly-completed bodhisattva sculpture. Two woodblock-printed texts had been removed by a previous owner from a cavity in the abdomen of the bodhisattva. Curators working with Shands X-ray technicians discovered that the Harn bodhisattva still contained a ball of texts in a head cavity. The bodhisattva subsequently underwent CAT scans and an endoscopy (through a removable hand socket). The resultant images may be the only possible record of the documents inside the head, which were deemed too fragile to remove. The images also revealed in detail the construction and materials used for the bodhisattva. Jason Steuber of the Harn Museum recalled, “Perhaps the most exciting moment was when we realized that the master carver acknowledged the energy of a tree by assimilating a tree limb to create the bodhisattva’s right arm.”

The Library Enhancement Grant funded the permanent online exhibition preserving the unique imagery of this important artifact and making it accessible worldwide. The exhibition was designed by Lourdes Santamaría-Wheeler who also served as curator in collaboration with Jason Steuber and Allysa Browne Peyton. The exhibition debuted in conjunction with the opening of the Harn Museum’s David A. Cofrin Asian Art Wing and has received international attention. A selection of images was publicized by The Washington Post, and the exhibition was featured in the October 2011 issue of Orientations, an Asian Art journal based in Hong Kong. The exhibition is available online.