Last updated: August 1, 2022.
Table of Contents:
The ROM’s Bishop White Gallery – Some Background History
2. Wooden Buddhist Temple Figures
3. The Paradise of Maitreya Fresco
Other Chinese Temple Murals in North America
- New York City: The Metropolitan Museum
- Kansas City: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
- Philadelphia: The University Museum of the U. of Pennsylvania
The ROM’s Bishop White Gallery – Some Background History
The Royal Ontario Museum’s Bishop White Gallery is one section of the museum that I have visited often over the past forty years. It houses a world-renowned collection of Chinese temple murals and Buddhist and Taoist statuary, most of which date back to the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368).
Below is an overview of what there is to see – the three great murals and a collection of wooden Buddhist temple statues on the island in the center. While I miss the temple-like atmosphere of the pre-2007 gallery, it is still nice to visit old friends. Unfortunately, the new space (see below) has all the charm of a warehouse; it’s like visiting someone you love in a long-term care facility!
The Taoist Temple Frescos:
First up are a pair of Yuan Dynasty Taoist murals from Longmen Monastery in Shanxi Province. From stylistic similarities with similar murals from a nearby monastery, a date of composition around 1325 C.E. is likely. Together the pair is referred to as Homage To The First Principle (i.e. the Tao).
The Lord of the Southern Dipper Fresco
They depict a procession of celestial beings of the Taoist pantheon. For outsiders with no idea who the figures are, the sheer majesty, sense of order in the scene, and the colour make the biggest impact. What is lacking is a story to pull the viewer in – this would be something that a Chinese peasant eight hundred years ago would have had no problem providing!
The main figures in one of the murals include Lao Tzu, the Jade Emperor, and the Empress of Heaven. The Lord of the Southern Dipper is among the figures in the right-hand group. The line drawing below provides a key to various figures present in the fresco:
A detailed examination of the fresco and its individual figures can be found in a Royal Ontario Museum bulletin from January 1946. Access a pdf file (6.7 Mb) of the publication here.
The Lord of the Northern Dipper Fresco:
On the other mural – the Lord of the Northern Dipper – one can identify the Yellow Emperor, the Emperor of Heaven, the Empress of Earth, as well as other deities.
The following ROM publication – the source of the sketches above – has a detailed examination of the fresco –
Bulletin of the Royal Ontario Museum December 1945 The Lord of the Northern Dipper Fresco
Wooden Buddhist Temple Figures:
From the two Taoist murals, I turned my attention to the statues arranged around a central column in the middle of the space.
In the images above and below is a gilded wooden statue of a seated Dhritarashtra (Chinese: Chiguo Tianwang), the Guardian King of the East. It comes from a temple in Jiang Xian and dates to the Yuan Dynasty like many of the other statues. The “air guitar” placing of his hands is a clue that the statue originally included a lute.
Behind the statue of the Guardian King, we see the sides of the single largest statue in the collection – probably of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara – and the pair of wooden statues (one of Dashizhi and one of Kuan Yin) flanking him. I say “him” and admit I am a bit confused! The Chinese name for the Sanskrit Avalokiteshvara is Kuan Yin, who is usually represented in female form.
Below is Dashizhi, identified by the crown, which has in it what is said to be a vase.
I didn’t get a great shot of the complete central statue of the large Kuan Yin figure but here it is from the waist up. Like the two flanking it, the wooden statue is painted and gilded. Usually, Kuan Yin figures include a small image of Amitabha in the crown; this one lacks that detail. However, his sheer size makes experts say he is “probably” Kuan Yin! The statue comes from Daning, where it stood in the Great Buddha Hall. I think on my next visit, I’ll make a point of getting a better shot!
The companion statue to the Dashizhi to the left of the large Bodhisattva figure – also from Linfen in Shanxi Province and dated 1195. It does have a figure of Amitabha in its crown, which identifies it as a Kuan Yin. The information board notes that this statue “has been painted at least four times, most recently in the 19th century.” Along with the companion statue to the left, it originally flanked a large central statue of Amitabha.
Yet more statues as I walk around the column …
The Paradise of Maitreya Mural:
And finally, my favourite stop on the tour! I am standing to the side of the mural titled The Paradise of Maitreya. Unlike the two Taoist murals, this one has a narrative that helps me understand what I am looking at. First, I learned that Buddhism, as the Mahayana form developed from the original austere form of its first few centuries, has many Buddhas and celestial beings – and not just the historical Buddha known as Siddhartha Gautama, who lived north of the Ganges River, around 500 B.C.E.
The Buddha known as Maitreya – the Buddha To Come – is the focal point of the above 36′ x 16.5′ mural. He first appears in Buddhist literature in the Theravada scriptures of the Digha Nikaya’s Sutta 26 (The Lion’s Roar On the Turning Of The Wheel). As you read through, you’ll meet some of the key figures of the mural’s story –
- Ketumati – aka Varanasi – the royal capital of the kingdom of Jambudipa
- Sankha – the king of this realm who renounces his power for the monastic life
- Metteyya – the Pali equivalent of Maitreya, the Buddha in this future world
The sutra has the Buddha we know – the Sakyamuni Buddha born as Siddhartha Gautama – make this prophetic pronouncement:
I’ve often wondered if this future saviour figure’s entry into Buddhism resulted from spreading the Christian myth of the Returning Saviour into Asia. Closer to our own time, various people – L. Ron Hubbard and the Raelian cult leader are two of them – have claimed to be Maitreya. Krishnamurti was groomed from an early age for the position by the Theosophist movement. (He would later reject the title.) If nothing else, we have proof of the power of hope in a better future, a truth that goes right back to the story of Pandora’s box!
The seated Maitreya is the central figure. He is in Tusita, the Buddhist Heaven where Bodhisattvas reside before they return to earth to become Buddhas. On each side are bodhisattvas, the fully realized beings who, in Mahayana Buddhism, have postponed their entry into nirvana to help others achieve it. Behind him are monastic disciples – the shaved heads are a sign of this. Had it been the historical Buddha, we might know their names as Ananda and Kashyap. While Ananda remembered and recited all of the Buddha sermons with the “Thus have I heard…” introduction, it was Kashyap who called and directed the first Buddhist Council after Gautama Buddha’s death to ensure the movement continued. So too, does Maitreya have his attendant monk and right-hand monk. Other celestial attendants flank him symmetrically on either side.
Trying to make sense of all of this will get your head spinning – especially if, like me, you think of the Buddha as just a man who stripped away all the mythology and metaphysical mumbo-jumbo of the religion of his day to present a practical approach to living a meaningful life! I’ve come to realize that the Buddhism I created in my head only exists there and not in the Buddhist societies I have visited.
And even though it is the Maitreya and not the historical Gautama Buddha, he still exhibits some of the features we associate with the latter – i.e. the elongated earlobes ( a sign of royalty) and the ushnisha or bump on the top of his head – originally a topknot or man bun which evolved into a cranial bump! However, he is seated “western style” as opposed to the cross-legged lotus position we associate with the Buddha. His hand gestures- a mudra in Sanskrit – are known as the Abhaya mudra and symbolize “Have no fear; all is good.”
On the bottom left of the mural – we are in the earthy domain now and not in Tusita Heaven – we see the Queen of the Kingdom of Jambudipa – her name is Brahmavati, and her hair is being shorn as a sign of her renunciation of the material world and her position as Queen. A pilgrim standing in front of this mural would have been moved by the knowledge that the Queen would become the future Maitreya’s mother.
Her husband, King Sankha, is undergoing the same haircut on the other side of the mural. Not clear is who Maitreya’s father was – or whether, like the Zoroastrian Saöshyánt or the Christian Jeshua – he was born of a virgin. More than just trade goods were carried along the ancient trade routes!
One of my favourite details of the mural is on the right-hand side. On the seated king’s left a servant is ready to catch his hair with a gold plate. And on his right – his young son wipes a tear from his eyes, knowing he is about to lose his father.
For a detailed examination of the fresco, see the following ROM publication –
ROM Bulletin July 1937 Chinese Temple Fresco No. 1 -The Paradise of Maitreya
The Museum has also uploaded to YouTube an informative five-minute look at the painting and the story of how it got to Toronto.
See the Wikipedia entry on the Bishop White Gallery for more. Thewrite-up ends with a very polite assessment of the space it finds itself in post-early-2000s renovation.
Other Chinese Temple Murals in North America:
1. New York City: The Metropolitan Museum
The R.O.M. is not the only North American museum with a rare Chinese temple mural on display. I remember a mid-1990s visit to NYC and the morning we spent with a small part of the Metropolitan Museum’s incredible collection. One room that drew me in had a mural from the same Chinese province of Shanxi as the ROM Maitreya mural. It had been donated to the MET in 1966 by a private donor whose father had acquired it in the mid-1920s.
At that time, the mural was still thought to be of the historical Sakyamuni Buddha. Here, for example, is a page from the Met’s Guide in 1994 –
However, a paper by Anning Jing had already appeared in the Metropolitan Museum Journal in 1991 and made the case that the mural had been misinterpreted. The Yuan Buddhist Mural of The Paradise of Bhaishajyaguru (click on the article title to access) makes for an enlightening tour of the monumental mural and the identity of its many figures.
The Met’s YouTube video is another excellent five-minute excursion into history and context:
2. Kansas City: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
More than just the MET mural popped up in looking for information about the ROM murals. Look at this mural from The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City.
By the way, the Nelson-Atkins is also where a stunning statue of Kuan Yin resides. Having seen images of it before, I had always wondered where it was. Now I know!
But wait – there’s more!
3. Philadelphia: The University Museum of the U. of Pennsylvania
The University of Pennsylvania’s Museum has two murals also procured in the mid-1920s. Here is an overview image of the murals in the dramatic space where they are installed –
And here are the two murals closer up.
Until I wrote this post, I had no idea all this existed. It’s amazing what you uncover when you start researching just one thing on the internet! Thirty minutes and a dozen clicks later, you wonder, “How did I end up here?” That’s got to be the curse – and the marvel – of surfing the ‘net!
If You Want to Know More:
Homage to Heaven, Homage to Earth: Chinese Treasures of the Royal Ontario Museum. 1991. The book introduces the museum’s collection of Chinese art and artifacts, one of the world’s finest. A brief examination of some of the wooden statuary and the Taoist and Buddhist murals is included.
The Toronto Public Library has a couple of book copies available for online reservation. See here.
Amazon lists some used copies from various vendors with $30. being the low price when I looked. See here.
Wikipedia articles on various topics, all thoughtfully written and with links to yet more information and images –
Bishop White Gallery
Paradise of Maitreya
Homage To The Highest Power
Paradise of Bhaisajyaguru
The Assembly of Tejaprabha (image source)
Penn Museum Write-Up on The Two Murals (and the source of the images I used)
Sometimes things go wrong, and images get mixed up. A Google page ( here) has an example! I think I’ll send them a note!
Related Post: Buddhist Baroque: Colombo’s Gangaramaya Temple
This is a superb post – I will take the time to read it again before my next visit to the ROM. I am attending the Dior Retrospective tomorrow (and The Vikings in a week or two).
The old Bishop White Gallery was set up like a temple and I loved sitting there. It only had one door to the rest of the museum and even seemed a bit darkened. I thought of it as The Bat Cave for mellow adults!
The Viking Exhibit was well done but I was flagging by the time I got there – and it was jam packed on a Sunday afternoon. I did not really give it the time it deserves – see it on an off hour or off day!
Send me the link to your post on the Vikings – or the Dior Exhibit – if you put something together!
“WOW”…I agree with the “superb” comment above. The beautiful photos bring it alive!! Garry
Good to know we don’t have to leave T.O. to see the world!
I just wish the Bishop White Gallery from the 1980’s was still around with its temple-like feel. Now it is like entering a warehouse!
I did read your comment about that…another sad example of progress I guess. The newer generation(s) would probably have their “reality goggles” to project that same “temple like feel”…so sad. Oh well…