Framing the Sacred – Cambodian Buddhist Painting

Exhibition: Institute of East Asian Studies at UC Berkeley, 20 November 2013 – 20 March 2014

Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī's Offering of the Triple Robe

Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī’s Offering of the Triple Robe

November 20, 2013 – March 20, 2014
Monday through Friday, 9 am – 5 pm
IEAS Lobby, 2223 Fulton Street, 6th Floor

Buddhist paintings in Cambodia serve in rituals, for teaching, and as a means of making space sacred. “Framing the Sacred: Cambodian Buddhist Painting” features fifteen works, eleven on cloth and four on glass, from the private collection of Joel Montague. The individual pieces in this exhibit display a wide variety of episodes from the Buddha’s biography, including his penultimate birth as Prince Vessantara. In addition, there is a single cloth painting that depicts key Buddhist teachings on suffering and death. Five of the eleven paintings on cloth are divided horizontally into two scenes. In some cases these scenes are related, while in others they depict chronologically distant events in the Buddha’s life. Although portable paintings on cloth and glass are among the most visible and frequently used forms of Buddhist art in Cambodia today, it is rare for such paintings to be collected together in an exhibit. The paintings on display embody both the religious stories and doctrines of Cambodian Buddhism and the traditions of Cambodian culture.

The primary functions of movable cloth and glass Buddhist paintings in Cambodia are twofold: to generate merit derived from their production, sponsorship, and dedication, and to demarcate sacred space. Most of the paintings in this exhibit include a short inscription. The inscriptions of the paintings on glass and a few of the paintings on cloth simply identify the scene from the Buddha’s biography. For most of the paintings on cloth, however, the inscription may name the sponsors, the dedicatees, the monastery to which the painting is being donated, and the aspirations of the sponsors. The merit attributed to sponsoring a clothing painting is confirmed by traditional Khmer ānisaṃ sa texts, short homilies that enumerate the karmic benefits accrued by the performance of various meritorious acts. The inscriptions on the paintings sometimes make clear that the merit accrued is dedicated by a named person to his or her deceased relative. In other cases, the paintings may serve as a bamlong (paṃ luṅ), an anonymous offering literally “relinquished” to the monastic community in memory of someone who recently passed away.

Whether in the form of named or anonymous offerings, paintings on cloth in particular are associated with funerary rites in Cambodia. Their use in death rituals highlights the second primary function of movable Buddhist paintings: the temporary demarcation of sacred space. Since Khmer funerals traditionally begin at the home of the deceased, the layperson’s residence needs to be transformed into a temporary temple before inviting monks to officiate the necessary rituals. This transformation may be as simple as setting up small altar backed with a single glass painting of the Buddha, or as elaborate as erecting a pavilion outside the home that features a dozen or more paintings on cloth of the Buddha’s biography around a central altar. When the rituals are complete, the paintings are returned or donated to the local monastery.

A complete catalog of the exhibit — including a more extensive introduction, details about each painting, and accompanying translations of Khmer liturgical texts — can be found here.


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