The stern eyes and open mouth of this fearsome mask are attributes of the Dragon King, one of the Eight Buddhist Guardians. It is thought that this mask somehow came to be separated from a valuable set of eight masks, the seven remaining of which are still housed at Toji temple in Kyoto. The mask is splendidly carved and colored, and its interior is finished with a coating of expensive black lacquer, signaling this object’s high importance.
Assembled in the twenty-first century, in a museum gallery in Seattle, this mask and the 160 other objects in LUMINOUS: The Art of Asia are radically displaced from their original sites of production. Their significance has shifted from sacred to secular as they have moved from temple hall to treasure house. Here, it is their aesthetic beauty that is being celebrated, not their ritual use. The museum viewer encounters these objects with very different expectations than a thirteenth-century worshipper might have held. We expect to be educated, or even awed, but we do not—in most cases—anticipate spiritual salvation.
LUMINOUS opens to the public on Thursday, 13 October, and remains on view through 8 January 2012.