Webinar on “Introduction to Ceramics in Southeast Asia & An Introduction to Buddhist and Hindu Bronze Sculpture in Southeast Asia with a Case Study on Javanese Bronzes (6th-15th century)”

In the ninth webinar of the webinar series, Dr Mathilde Mechling, Mr Eko Bastiawan and Dr Heidi Tan spoke on the Buddhist and Hindu Bronze Sculpture in Southeast Asia and Ceramics in Southeast Asia.


Monday, 1 November 2021 – The ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute hosted a webinar titled “Introduction to Ceramics in Southeast Asia & An Introduction to Buddhist and Hindu Bronze Sculpture in Southeast Asia with a Case Study on Javanese Bronzes (6th-15th century) ” by Dr Heidi Tan, a ceramic expert and curator, as well as Mr Eko Bastiawan and Dr Mathilde Mechling, both Southeast Asia bronze art experts. The webinar was part of the Temasek History Research Centre’s Archaeology and Art History of Southeast Asia Programme and was moderated by one of the programme’s conveners Dr Helene Njoto.

Dr Mathilde Mechling gave an overview of Buddhist and Hindu bronze sculpture in Southeast Asia. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

This webinar was divided into two parts; the first was dedicated to bronze statuary and the second to ceramics. Dr Mathilde Mechling kicked off with a brief introduction to the constitutive materials of bronze. She explained how bronze was used to produce sacred and ritual art objects since the prehistoric period, but the presentation focused on Buddhist and Hindu bronze sculpture from the 6th c. onwards. She then dived into more technical explanations on the fabrication techniques of bronze statuary (the lost-wax technique mainly), as well as research techniques used to study bronze art (archaeometallurgy). She showed examples of large bronze statues from Java, Cambodia, and the Thai-Malay Peninsula. Dr Mechling demonstrated that smaller statues have been preserved in larger number in Southeast Asia, and that their function varied from that of the larger images. Bronze images evidence interregional exchanges with India and China through an analysis of their style and geographical distribution. In some cases, the direction of exchanges from India to Southeast Asia may be challenged. For example, the bronze standing Buddhas with pleated robes traditionally associated with the so-called Indian “Amaravati style” are found in larger number in Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka, while only one is known at Amaravati, which suggests that these statues may not have come from India.

Mr Eko Bastiawan explained that that to ascertain dates of bronze, identification of physical features is important. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Mr Eko Bastiawan followed up with a presentation on Javanese bronzes, which styles are rather unique and can be found in Indonesian collections as well as in Europe and the US. 

One significant type of bronze statue is the “Nganjuk type” which comprises 99 small statues. This set was identified as the Vajradhatu mandala by Anandagarbha, found in other places such as Tibet and bringing further evidence of Java’s connectedness with other regions of Asia from an early period on.

Mr Eko Bastiawan completed the first presentation about stylistic features, by underlining that to ascertain dates of bronze, identification of physical features is equally important. He took the example of a Four faced Vairocana where a Kala head is represented without any lower jaw, a feature typical of Central Java. However, this Kala has horns, a feature more prominent in East Java, which could indicate that the statue was created during the transition period from Central to East Java. Mr Eko Bastiawan provided further examples of ornamentation and physical features as tools for dating a statue: the spiky ornamentation such as the heavy jewellery worn by statues (armbands/bracelets, double necklaces etc.), the dramatic poses of deities, the strands of hair, the curl of ribbon, etc. This spiky ornamentation, typical of East Javanese statuary, shows a clear contrast with the gentler and still posture of Central Javanese statuary. 

Dr Heidi Tan gave an introduction to ceramics in Southeast Asia. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

In the second part of the webinar, Dr Heidi Tan introduced ceramics in Southeast Asia, starting with a focus on the unique technological attributes such as types of clay, methods of production and firing during the first millennium CE. Dr Tan demonstrated how locally innovative ceramic traditions emerged at this time. These included elaborately decorated earthenware with combed, impressed, and applied decoration (3rd–5th c, southern Vietnam), and architectural as well as sculptural reliefs for Pyu (7th–8th c) and Dvaravati period (c.9th c) temples. High-fired glazed stoneware with ash-glaze was another innovation in evidence in the Kulen Mountains (Cambodia c. late 9th c). Glaze technologies flourished during the 11th to 13th centuries for domestic and export markets in northern Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar and underglaze cobalt blue painted decoration developed in Vietnam were exported throughout the region during the ‘Ming Gap’ (14th-15th c.). Customised ceramics were used at sacred sites such as Vietnamese blue-and-white tiles for Islamic religious architecture in Java and unique lead-glazed earthenware tiles made locally for temples in Mrauk U, Myanmar. In this context, Dr Tan demonstrated that porcelain donations also served as merit-making objects, as can still be seen in Thai and Burmese temples and pagoda museums. In some places, trustees and monks still have a duty to take care of these objects valued as sacred.  

The webinar was attended by 186 attendees mainly from across Asia but also from Europe and Australia. Questions varied from the meaning behind the difference of size, periods and subjects regarding bronze art across Asia, to technical issues regarding casting and archaeometallurgy. The public was also curious about the use of ceramics in architectural décor in Indonesia, as well as technical issues related to the production of blue and white Chinese porcelain and Vietnamese ceramics.

(Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)