Visitors can explore the complex story of the Buddha through its portrayal on a rarely seen 37-foot painted cloth scroll from Laos that will be shown along with Thai Buddhist figures and other Southeast Asian Theravada Buddhist works from Phoenix Art Museum's collection.
The Vessantara Jataka (Phra Wetsandon) or “Great Birth Sermon” is one of the most popular and influential stories of the 547 Jatakas or stories told by the Buddha of his previous lives as he experienced successive rebirths on the path to Enlightenment. He told these stories in response to questions about how to emulate his wisdom and to improve one’s karma so as to result in a better rebirth. Each Jataka emphasizes a particular virtue; the Vessantara Jataka emphasizes generosity. This story has been told countless times in the past two millennia through oral recitations, wall paintings or cloth paintings such as this one, and in dramatic re-enactments in parades, live skits, comic books, movies and television. Many Buddhists know the story of Prince Vessantara, who, when asked, offered up as gifts that which was most precious to him: his kingdom’s sacred elephant, his riches and the riches of his kingdom, his children, and finally his wife.
This art form can be found housed in almost every Buddhist temple throughout the rural Northeastern Thai and Lao region. Painted cloth scrolls are used during annual temple festivals (Bun Phra Wet) in which the life of Prince Vessantara is re-enacted through processions through the village during which the scroll is carried as well as oral recitations in the temple. Due to this repeated use and the tropical climate, these cloth scrolls degrade over time. Once they have been deemed unsuitable for further use, they are customarily burned. Artists who paint these scrolls are often anonymous, and their work is supported by donations from members of the local community. The entire story of the Vessantara Jataka has thirteen chapters; this partial fragment contains the first four chapters. Inscriptions throughout the scroll; most in Tho Tham, a sacred Lao script; give terse clues to the specific action taking place.
Sacred Stories and Images of the Buddha: The Vessantara Jataka Scroll is organized by Phoenix Art Museum. Social photography is encouraged in this exhibition. Share your visit with #BuddhaScroll.
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Left: Unknown, Thailand, Vessantara Jataka Scroll, 1930s (detail). Handpainted on cotton/linen. Gift of Peter Banko in honor of Baas Terwiel & H. Leedom Lefferts Right: Unknown, Thailand, Seated Buddha, Bangkok Period, 1782-present. Gilt bronze. Gift from Doris Duke's Southeast Asian Art Collection.
The exhibition is organized by Phoenix Art Museum.