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312th Meeting - Tuesday, May 6th 2009 

18th – 20th Century Thai and Other Southeast Asian Paintings of the Lord Buddha

A talk and presentation by James Bogle

Present: Tony Pope, Richard Nelson-Jones, Joyce Barnes, Carolyn Fleig, Gaelle Linard, Ken Dyer, Derrick Titmus, Bodil Blokker, Peter Kunstadter, Peter Hoare, Karin Bode, Nancy Remus, Rachel Yaxley, Angela Vernon, Paddy Loyd, Ivan Hall, Annabel Coulet, Janet Illeni, Bonnie Brereton, Louis Gabaude, Kongkaew Inthanon, Paul Mahoney, Renee Vines, Hans Bänziger, Lorenz Ferrari, Guy Cardinal, Patarasri Inkhao, David James, Mangkut, Prissy Soontomwiuate, Rosemary Khampha, Neti Phikron, Reinhard Hohler, Oliver Hargreave, Bodge Wallingford, C. J. Marcus, Vithi Phanichphant, Marjorie Muecke, Wattana Wattanapun. An audience of 39 plus a couple more.

Summary of his talk prepared by James


I am happy to be here tonight to share with you some paintings I have of the Lord Buddha. I am a little nervous trying my pronunciation on words which I know, but have never heard spoken - and are not in the dictionary with aids for pronunciation--you will know what words those are when I stumble. I first became exposed to Asian art when in Bangkok in the late 50’s to undertake a Master Plan for that city with a team of professionals. The art history education I received at the University of Pennsylvania was solely focused on occidental art; what I saw in Thailand in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s was to say the least ‘eye-opening’! I was enthralled. So tonight I have a chance to try and explain it all.

Reasons for the Paintings

Karen Armstrong in her book ‘Buddha’ suggested that writing a biography of Buddha was a very un-Buddhist thing to do - since no authority should be revered. The same could be said about paintings. Paintings of Theravada Buddhism focus of the dialectic aspects of the religion and thusly, emphasize the historical Buddha, the 547 Jatakas which are the stories of his former lives and dialectic appendages such as the Phra Malai stories. All these focus on the religious education and attainment of knowledge of the viewers. Theravada paintings also allow for tableaus of many facet events of Buddha’s life such as the ‘great departure’ and the battle with Māra which Mahāyāna Buddhist art now mostly ignores.

Age Assignments of the Paintings

Only three of the paintings in my collection have dates; two of which you will see tonight. The rest of the paintings have best estimates of dates based on stylistic content and mural paintings of temples with known dates. Painted details also reflect the age in which the painting was developed. The age assignments of the paintings are still in flux and probably will be adjusted and changed as more information is available. The paintings you will see here tonight range from the Ayutthaya period to mid 20th century.

Aspects of the Paintings

Both quality and artistic value vary greatly. Some of the paintings you will see tonight have more historical value than artistic. The badly denigrated paintings which have been reproduced, (which you will see shortly), to improved communication with them have historical value and were acquired, despite condition, because of their fine inherent artistic quality. However, in general the paintings on cloth and wood appear to have fared much better over time then the murals on walls. Defective roofs, seepage through the walls, neglect and unattended cracks play hard on the preservation of murals. Paintings on cloth and wood while subject to the vicissitudes of the owner, or keeper, of the paintings appear to have fared better.

Opening Slide

The opening slide is an anomaly since it of a Jakata painting (King Sanjaya’s journey to the hermitage to return Vessantara home) and not the subject matter of this talk. It is the first Thai painting I acquired and I am very fond of it. I also questioned the appropriateness of having a painting of Buddha used this way; pasting the title legend of the talk over the image.

Events in the Life of the Lord Buddha

The chapters in Buddha’s passage through life have many variants. A recent publication has as many 81 episodes or chapters in the life of Buddha with plans to expand that number in later editions to 291. Another recent, well presented and thoughtful book, list 29 major episodes. The gift of the United States to the people of Thailand on the occasion of the 2,500 year anniversary, in 1957, of the Lord Buddha’s enlightenment list 65 chapters. It was noted by Snelligrove in his book “The Image of the Buddha” that: ‘’The only sections of his life-story that are treated coherently are the events from his leaving home to his gaining Enlightenments and his first preaching and then his last journey and final passing into Nirvana.’’


Life of Buddha – a Tableau
Pigments on cloth
Thailand: Rattankosin style. Dated Buddhist Era 2443 (1900 AD)
298cm x 169cm/114.5” x 66.5”
(The painting was completed on day 5 (Thursday) 6th month, the day of the full moon, year of the ox, or the 120th year of the Rattankosin era)

The painting is also an anomaly; it is very large; it is dated and the artist and patrons are known; iconography Rattankosin derivative western influenced, time line is per convention adjusted to the needs of expressing the painting; composition western.


Episodes in the Life of Buddha
Pigments on cloth
Thailand: Rattankosin Provincial. Circa: Last quarter of 19th Century?
203 cm x 84 cm / 80” x 33”
Uncertain of meaning of some episodes; Provincial in character; Time line good, sin thao; Aureole provided Gotama not appropriate. Tiffany lamp is clue to date.


The Buddha-to-be in Tusita Heaven and other episodes
Pigments on cloth
Cambodia: Court style? Circa 1870
180cm x 70 cm / 70.9” x 27.5”
Classical execution; palette Cambodian-Blues very dark or tending toward teals - and reds towards orange; time line reversed; compartmentalization flawless; no sin thao; painter apparently more concerned with aesthetics than dialectic value: suggest this was a commissioned for a client as a wall hanging. Christies Amsterdam assigned an early 19th century date which I disagree with. The composition is very interesting which will be discussed at the end.


Marriage of Buddha’s Parents
Pigments on wood
Thailand: Rattankosin style.
Circa: Early-mid 19th Century
57 cm x 73.6 cm / 22.5” x 29”

The painting is believed to be from the reign of Rama III (1824-1851). The royal couple, attended by two servants, are seated on an elaborated plinth in a pavilion which is demarked from the background architecture by a blue curtain. In the foreground are to be found the populace and to the left hand side the musicians. The architecture forms a rich background and is similar to that of the murals, showing the distributions of the relics, in the ubosoth of Wat Dusidaram,Thonburi.


Buddha Seated in the Jeweled House
Natural pigments on cloth
Thailand: Rattankosin style. Circa: Reign of Rama I (1782 – 1809)
170 cm x 70 cm / 67” x 27.5”
An early painting; perspective attempted with miniaturization of the trees in the background.


Buddha Seated in the Jeweled House
Pigments on cloth
Commissioned reproduction of Figure 5 by Triphum, Siam Paragon, Bangkok. July 2007
170 cm x 70 cm / 67” x 27.5”

The proportions of the reproduced painting reflect artistic judgment; not rote copying. The artist, with liberty, has added additional information to the top and bottom segments of the painting in order to improve the balance of the composition.


Buddha Seated in the Jeweled House
Pigments on cloth
Cambodia. Circa: Mid-19th Century
145 cm x 95 cm / 57” x 37.5”

The colors and architecture leads me to believe it is Cambodian in origin. This painting is badly denigrated and I looked at it for almost a year before I couldn’t resist any more and acquired it.

Figure 6R

Buddha Seated in the Jeweled House
Pigments on cloth
Reproduction of Figure 6 by Bytriphum, Siam Paragon, Bangkok. January 2007
145 cm x 95 cm / 57” x 37.5”

The work is quite good and faithful to the original with one exception; i.e. the flower jars flanking the table below the seated main figure are depicted in Ban Chiang style; Ban Chiang pottery was not discovered until the mid-1960’s long after the original painting was executed. I liked this mistake and rejected the offers for a ‘redo’ of the jars.


Buddha Descending from Tavatisma Heaven
Natural pigments on wood
Thailand: Ayuthaya School. Circa: 18th Century
76 cm x 56 cm / 30” x 22”

Probably the most important and oldest painting of Buddha. An engaging and complex painting showing scenes from the life of the Buddha. Buddha is seated on a golden throne under the Coral Tree of Paradise. To his near left is Sakka, and to his far left is the four-faced Brahman.

The second scene is Buddha returning from heaven on the full moon day at the close of the Lenten season. The third scene shows Buddha opening the bowels of the earth. After his descent he exposed the three worlds so all could see him. The painting exhibits original iconography and while rich is detail shows simplicity in its approached to a complex subject.

The painting is symmetrically balanced. The devatas in the upper quadrants floating in equal number on either side of the with two far off temples also floating in the blue skies symmetrical around the depiction of Tavatisma Heaven and in the lower quadrant we have a massing of architecture against the depiction of hell earth against hell. The architecture shown is complex but recognizable as Thai; the foliage is rendered in an almost impression manner.


Buddha Descending from Tavatisma Heaven
Pigments on cloth
Cambodian. Dated: BE 2497 (1954)
197 cm x 88.25 cm / 77.5” x 34.75”

Much of the painting’s composition is related to that of Figure 7; even though there is a separation of 200, or more, years in the times of execution. The iconography of the figures has succumbed to western influences


Buddha Preaching in Sankassa
Pigments on cloth
Thailand: Rattankosin style. Circa 19th Century
62.4cm x 47 cm /24.5” x 18.5

The painting, executed in dark tones, shows the Buddha at the top addressing an assemblage of people. On his left are devatas and on his right are nobles. Lower down is a row of segregated men and women. In the lower part are common people and children at play and interacting with one another behind a limestone outcrop. Half hidden elephants are seen emerging from the outcrop; one ridden by a prince. In the foreground five singhas (lions in mythical form) are seen prancing with a group of wide eyed boys looking on. I have accepted the date assigned by Christies NYC for this painting.


The First Sermon and Buddha’s Parinibbana
Pigments on cloth
Cambodia. Circa: Early 20th Century
240 cm x 112 cm / 94.5” x 44”

In the fullest sense of the word, this painting has been ‘idealized’. The alignment of the disciples and other into orderly files is perfect. The execution of the painting is stylistically flawless. The execution of the painting reaches the highest level of micro detailing. Great care has been taken to have the faces focused on the Buddha. The contrast in technique with other paintings is overwhelming apparent.

There are also celestial worshippers whose appearance and coloration gives pause to the viewer. Their startling appearances and coloration does not indicate evil. These may be YAK-SHA, protective spirits whose mien is awesome.


Death of Buddha
Pigments on cloth
Thailand: Lanna Primitive style. Circa: Mid-19th Century
185.5 cm x 94 cm / 73” x 37”

The execution of this primitive painting is most wondrous. The painting is executed in a lyrical primitive style with radiant colors. The painting, especially in the upper part which indicates heaven is richly done with monks, devatas and royalty inhabiting the space. The sky contains cosmic bursts.


The Buddha’s Parinibbana and Cremation
Pigments on cloth
Thailand: Lanna Classical style. Circa: Third quarter of 19th Century
183.5 cm x 80 cm / 72.25” x 31.5”

This Lanna painting, a masterpiece, is executed in Lanna style with radiant colors. The painting tells the story of Buddha’s parinibbana; his cremation and disposal of ashes. The painting is wonderfully presented and the story told is clearly.

Five Paintings of the Buddha and His Two Disciples

The following five pictures are of the Lord Buddha and his two most important disciples. Moggallana on his left and Sariputta on his right. Buddha stands on a lotus pedestal in a position of abhaya-mudra. These images were objects of veneration equal in status as images of wood, stone and bronze.

Moggallana and Sariputta, boyhood friends from Rajagriha, (a town 70 kilometers southeast of Patan on the Ganges River) were ascetics who sought spiritual fulfillment despite being the products of wealthy families. It was in Rajagriha that the Buddha spent several rainy seasons and it was here in a bamboo grove that Moggallana and Sariputta heard the teachings of Buddha; the Dharma, and were ordained into the sangha. Moggallana was acknowledged by the Buddha to have great attainment of miraculous powers. He was foremost in the propagation of the faith and conveyed messages from heaven and hell. Sariputta was acknowledged by Buddha to be the foremost of all disciples in the attainment of wisdom.


Buddha and Two Disciples
Pigments on wood
Thailand: Rattankosin style. Circa: First quarter of 19th Century
43cm x 30cm/17” x 11 ¾”

The Lord Buddha is shown encased in a structure against a light blue background. Of interest is the arch of the shrine surrounding the Buddha’s image. This type of surround may have origins in Sri Lankan Buddhist art, a modification of the Sri Lanka type affording protection and good augury. This arch aureole also symbolizes his fiery energy. Also of note are the stylized Thai flames emitting around the arch. All the figures are shown in ordinary monk’s dress. The other two principal figures are shown against a dark foliate background; these figures are encased in a saw tooth band, called sin thao. The richly colored figures contrast with the dark, simple foliate background; a falling ‘flowers motif’ which has roots in the Ayutthaya period of art. A similar motif may be found in the Ayutthayan era Wat Khian on the west wall. Flying / floating overhead are rishis with lotus buds, even today a gift of the laity.


Buddha and Two Disciples
Pigments and gilt on wood
Thailand: Rattankosin School. Circa: Second quarter of 19th Century
51cm x 40.6cm / 20 ¼” x 16”

All the figures are adorned with the princely/kingly robes; which became typical of the Rattankosin period of Thai art. The robes are heavily encrusted with gold embroidery; bracelets and armbands adorn the figures. The disciples enjoy princely three tier umbrellas, while the Buddha’s halo is composed of the Naga and the coral tree of paradise. The figures all have elaborate golden crowns. The rich figures contrast with the dark, simple foliate background has roots in the Ayutthaya style a similar motif (falling flowers) may be found in the Ayutthayan era Wat Khian on the west wall.


Buddha and Two disciples
Pigments and gilt on paper
Thailand: Rattankosin style. Circa: Last quarter of 19th Century
33.6cm x 23.5cm / 13.25” x 9.25”


Buddha and Two disciples
Pigments on cloth
Thailand: Rattankosin style. Circa: First or second quarter of 19th Century
199cm x 81.5 cm/ 78.5” x 32”

The aureole around his body is the Tree of Enlightenment. All the figures are shown in monk’s dress. The other two principal figures are shown against a foliate background. All principal figures are encased in a saw tooth band, called sin thao. Flying overhead are rishis with lotus buds, even today a gift by laity to priests The richly colored figures contrast with the dark, simple foliate background; a falling ‘flowers motif’ which has roots in the Ayutthaya period of art. A similar motif may be found in the Ayutthayan era Wat Khian on the west wall.


Buddha and Two disciples
Pigments on cloth
Thailand: Rattankosin style. Circa: Mid to Late 19th Century
187 x 88 cm/ 73.75” x 34.5”

In addition to the 17 original figures and 2 reproduction figures, there were also subsets of illustrations of the figures explaining in greater detail the composition of each painting. These included such things as the identification of the various episodes in the life of Buddha; Gotama leaving and returning to the palace, the battle with Mara, the casting of the bowl into the river and so on. All-in-all the 'Power Point' presentation had 63 slides. A memorable evening in the company of a man for whom collecting paintings and object d’art is very obviously so much more than just a hobby.