Thai Temple Banner, c. 19th century
Gold and pigment on cloth, 4 x 9 ft.

Unknown, Thai Temple Banner, c. 19th century. Gold and pigment on cloth, 4 x 9 ft. Gift of Joan Safford Wright and Nicholas H. Wright, Class of 1957, M.2019.33.

The figure of the Buddha stands on a pedestal, over a wreath of lotus flowers flanked by four devas—beings in Buddhism considered higher than humans but not yet possessing the powers of the universe. The artists are also paying homage to their particular Buddhist lineage by depicting rishi, hermits who practiced magic and astrology for members of their communities. Depicted near the knees of Buddha, they are dressed in leopard skin to represent the power they must have possessed to have retrieved that skin. 

The delicately painted banner begets much inquiry. Such large images of the Buddha were typically painted directly on the walls of early Thai temples, usually on the ordination hall or sermon hall. Banners would have been unrolled and hung for certain festivals and used for processions, suggesting that this example may possibly have been commissioned by a foreigner. The style of the Persian-influenced flowers and geometric patterning on the pedestal point to the 19th century, as do the Chinoiserie flowerspopular then when trade among Thailand and China and Arabian nations resumed. 

About the artist

While the artists are unknown, it is known that artists in this culture were either trained as artists or as monks. They would have worked together to perform different tasks: some drew the design on the banner, others gilded or applied the gold leaf, and others painted the finished design. Later, others repaired the banner on the back by adding new strips of cloth. They each may have viewed these exercises as part of their spiritual practice. They would not have signed their names because the focus was on the subject of the Buddha. Buddhists do not see themselves as lone practitioners but rather believe that their teachers and other spirits are always present, in space and in one’s ideas, thoughts, and practices.