Crafting of the Iconic Body: On the Inner Recesses of Chinese Buddhist Images

Seunghye Lee, Leeum Samsung Museum of Art


The Tang-Song period in Chinese history witnessed several innovations in discourses on and practices of the Buddhist body. These innovations include the growing intersections between treatment of human bodies and making of funerary portraits, as well as the impact of medical knowledge on practice of making religious images. These related phenomena brought major changes in conceptualizing the inner recesses of Buddhist images, a space that becomes invisible after the initial concealment and that had been rarely mentioned in medieval Chinese Buddhist texts. This paper examines the ways in which Chinese Buddhist defined, crafted, and interpreted this space within this broader cultural landscape of the Tang-Song period. I will focus on how objects, whether they were ashes gathered from funerary pyre, organ replicas made of silk, or papers inscribed with dedications, partook in the creative process of transforming voids into interior spaces. By closely looking at objects inserted and their engagement with the surroundings, I aim to provide an alternative reading of the practice, which has been largely discussed under the rubric of “enlivenment,” “vitalization,” “empowerment,” or “animation” of images, yet to be fully explored.