Path to the stars drawn on the walls

The Buddhist Murals of Pagan
February 18, 2005

There has been little analysis of wall paintings in Burmese art historical research. This volume, lavishly illustrated with more than 250 colour pictures, seeks to rectify that lacuna in investigating the murals in the temples at Pagan.

Chapter one, "The murals of Pagan, presentation", describes in detail the disposition of the murals on the temples' walls, focusing on the life of the historical Buddha, the multiplication of Buddha images, the flamed and the cosmological Buddhas and the representation of historical material. It concludes with a brief exploration of the sources for Pagan painting styles and iconography.

In this chapter, Claudine Bautze-Picron briefly postulates that the depiction of the path to enlightenment gives way over time to representations of the cosmological Buddha. This is an interesting hypothesis that should be explored in further detail. Another fruitful analysis would be of the disposition of the murals. While the placement of each subject is described at length in the themed chapters and in the final guide to the murals of specific temples, little analytical use is made of the material. What can the arrangement of the murals say about religious practice and belief over the 200-year efflorescence of Burmese culture at Pagan? Given the wealth of information in this book, the possibility of answering this is considerably enhanced.

The miraculous life of the Buddha, starting with the events surrounding his birth and concluding with the division of his relics, is described in chapter two. Descriptions of these narratives on Pagan temple walls are accompanied by quotes from relevant texts. The connection between the textual material and the murals is not delineated, however, leaving the reader unclear as to the purpose of this juxtaposition. Some introductory and conclusory material would have enhanced the analysis.

The third chapter explores the representation of the Jataka stories in the Pagan murals. Bautze-Picron analyses several Jataka stories in detail, but provides no explanation as to why these in particular have been selected from the sequence of the 547 tales. Given the extensiveness of the portrayals of the Jataka stories at Pagan, the chapter is surprisingly short. The truncated nature of depictions of the first 537 stories and the fact that only the extended last ten Jatakas are portrayed in detail at Pagan may have influenced the discussion.

Chapter four provides descriptions of Dipankara Buddha, the Buddhas of the past, and Maitreya, the Buddha of the future. Unfortunately, some pictures are too poor or too general to see why an attribution has been made. The provision of further explanatory material and more detailed photographs would have provoked more informed analyses by the reader or viewer.

Iconographic ornamentation and ornamental decoration are described in chapters five and six respectively. It is possible to quibble with the use of the term "iconographic ornamentation" because many of the images, such as the army of Mara and Sakka and Brahma, are integral parts of specific life stories of the Buddha, and it is unclear what the benefits are of considering them separately.

The ornamental decoration in the paintings is extensive, and Bautze-Picron rightly spends a considerable amount of time discussing it. She briefly mentions the connection between the internal paintings and the external stucco, another topic that needs further study.

The book concludes with an extensive description of the murals at 36 sites. But there are no diagrams, making it difficult to visualise the disposition of the narratives and decoration.

The information presented in this book is extensive and is clearly the result of much effort and study. Unfortunately, the writing is marred by grammatical errors and convoluted language. The arrangement of the pictures often requires the reader to flip back and forth through pages and chapters; greater correlation between text and image would have been appropriate. The text seems somewhat list-like and would have benefited from further analysis of the material, along with paragraphs explaining the purpose of each section and summarising its conclusions. This book will not be accessible to those without some knowledge of Buddhism and Buddhist narratives. Despite these criticisms, this is a valuable addition to scholarship on Burma, and will be a standard reference book for some time.

Alexandra Green is curator of Asian art, Denison University, Ohio, US.

The Buddhist Murals of Pagan: Timeless Vistas of the Cosmos

Author - Claudine Bautze-Picron
Publisher - Orchid Books, Bangkok, www.orchidbooks.com (Distributed by Kodansha Europe, 020 7740 70)
Pages - 242
Price - £39.00
ISBN - 974 524 025 7

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