Word Embodied: Entangled Icons in Medieval Japanese Buddhist Art

Third Thursday lecture - Sainsbury Institute

Thursday 20 February, 2020
6:00pm GMT

Weston Room, Norwich Cathedral Hostry, Norwich NR1 4EH


Dr Halle O’Neal (University of Edinburgh)

About the Speaker

Halle O’Neal, a specialist in Japanese Buddhist art, is a Reader and Director of Research in the History of Art department at the University of Edinburgh and an Associate in Research at Harvard University, Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies. Her recent book, Word Embodied: The Jeweled Pagoda Mandalas in Japanese Buddhist Art, published by Harvard University Press in 2018, explores the intersections of word and image, and relics and reliquaries. Her current monograph project, “Writing against Death: Buddhist Palimpsests of Medieval Japan,” explores the materiality of death and mourning and the visualisation of memory and embodiment in Japanese letter sutras.

About the Talk

Dr O’Neal’s project on the Japanese jeweled pagoda mandalas reveals the entangled realms of relics, reliquaries, and Buddhist scripture engendered through intricate interactions of word and image.
The twelfth and thirteenth-century mandalas use precisely choreographed characters from sutras rather than architectural line to compose the central icon of a pagoda. Surrounding this textual image, narrative vignettes pictorialize the content of the scriptures. This talk delves into the materiality of the objects and the dynamic viewing encouraged by such rich surfaces by using digital animation to map how the textual characters construct the pagoda. Doing so uncovers alternative functions for written word that has jettisoned its exegetical purpose as well as the performative engagement that the paintings require of the viewer. These movements dictated by the surface encourage viewers to experientially constitute the resolution and dissolution of the various instantiations of Buddha body into one. Such a performance enables the concepts of sutra, relic, dharma, body, and pagoda to exist in a fluid and constantly interchanging visual relationship. This examination of the mandalas, therefore, recovers crucial underlying dynamics of Japanese Buddhist art, including invisibility, performative viewing, and the spectacular visualizations of embodiment.

Please see the review by Dr Yen-Yi Chan, a current Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Fellow.

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The Third Thursday Lecture series is funded by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation and Yakult UK.