For centuries, Prince Sho¯toku (574–632) has been celebrated in Japan as foremost among early advocates of Buddhism, following the religion’s introduction in the sixth century. Chronicles of his life relate that at the age of two, Sho¯toku placed his hands together and chanted, "I take refuge in the Buddha," upon which a relic of the Buddha Shakyamuni — the left eye — appeared in his hands. Later in life, Prince Sho¯toku became an important statesman and the founder of a number of Buddhist temples. By the medieval era, a cult devoted to Sho¯toku had been established, and images commemorating specific events in the life of the deified prince proliferated in sculpted and painted form.
The statue was constructed by the multiple-block (yosegi zukuri) technique. The pieces were glued together vertically and the joints covered with a glossy black lacquer, after which the figure was painted. Such statues were resistant to cracking, and their hollow interiors could hold objects of religious significance. Although the statue is blackened from incense smoke, some flesh-tone and crimson pigments remain on the ear and skirt. The head and body consist of two pieces each, as well as additional pieces for the bottom of the skirt. The eyes were set with crystal before the blocks were assembled. The arms are modern reconstructions.
The sculpture is carved in a manner stylistically similar to mid-thirteenth-century works. Slight bulges at the stomach and knees are evident under the skirt, which falls gently around the statue’s bare toes. The head is carefully shaped, and the features are portrayed with delicate attention to the rise and fall of the facial planes. The realism of this statue is typical of Kamakura-period sculpture.
This statue depicts a young Prince Shōtoku (574–622), a semi-legendary figure and a strong supporter of Buddhism. Originally the wood surface would have been painted to emulate the tones of human flesh, but it has darkened over time to its present appearance. This particular iconography, Nambutsu Taishi, commemorates the moment when, at the age of two, Shōtoku faced east and put his hands together. He uttered words in reverence of the Buddha, and a small vessel containing a relic, the left eye of the Buddha Shakyamuni, appeared in his hands. The relic is now enshrined at Hōryūji temple in Nara, along with a similar wooden statue of Shōtoku Taishi.
Princeton University Art Museum: Handbook of the Collections, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Art Museum, 2013).