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11. Gyokugan: The Windows to the Soul

by David Bilbrey

In the early periods of Japanese art history, eyes were simply carved into the wood (and then painted). This way of depicting a sculpted eye is called chougan (彫眼), and examples of this can be seen in many temples throughout Japan. However, when visiting a temple with carvings that have crystal eyes, it is impossible to ignore the intimacy of the statuary’s pensive gaze or piercing glare. This style of eye-crafting is called gyokugan (玉眼). I always marveled at this technique for eye treatment, but simply studying them at arm’s length wasn’t enough for me to understand what was actually happening. I started to research the history behind these wonderful innovations, and learned enough to try my own hand at replicating the process.

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Left: The so-called Seated Scribe. Painted limestone, eyes inlaid with rock crystal in copper, 4th of 5th dynasty of Egypt, 2600–2350 BC (museum) or 2620-2500 BC, late 27th-26th century BC: Photo Public Domain. Middle: Archaeological Museum, Athens - Bronze portrait - Photo by Giovanni Dall'Orto, Nov 11 2009. Right: Phto by David Bilbrey

Historically, several cultures have come up with some very ingenious solutions for how to bring more life to the eyes of their sculptures. Ancient greeks would assemble eyes from copper, glass and/or shell, and anchor them from the inside of a hollow bronze head. The Egyptians combined materials of alabaster, rock crystal & copper, and inserted them from the outside of the face to bring vitality to their sculptures and busts. The Chinese would position small obsidian beads in the center of the eyes, (a technique which was sometimes also seen in Japan during the Asuka and Nara periods (combined 538-974)). In the late Heian period (974-1185), however, a new process for infusing a startlingly realistic quality into the eyes of sculpture elevated Japanese Buddhist statuary to new heights.

In 1151, an Amida Triad in the Chougakuji was the first in Japan to employ gyokugan. The technology behind this craft can simply and casually be described as an eyeball sandwich. The būshi of the Chougakuji’s Amida group carved rock crystal into a lens, painted the inside with a pupil & iris, backed it with paper, and then inserted it into an uchiguri (hollowed-out) head. The result was revolutionary. Made more famous by the Kei school about 30 years later, this technique became the sculpting standard which further set Japanese butsuzo apart from what was happening with the rest of the world.

Let’s take a closer look at what is going on here, using a working model I made many years ago.

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Left: Twenty-Eight Attendants (Basu Sennin) Sanjusangendo. Sanjusangendo, Kyoto, Japan 1933 奈良帝室博物館 volume on Japanese sculpture. Date: 18 March 2012. Author: Nara National Museum 奈良帝室博物館 (Showa 8 - 1933). Photo: Public domain. Right: photo by David Bilbrey.

Forcing a piece of rock crystal to become another shape is exceedingly difficult, especially without the aid of power tools. Before shaping the crystal, the type of eye needs to be determined: will these be the eyes of a wrathful Fudo Myo-o or Kongorikishi? or a meditating Buddha? An animal, perhaps? For this model, I used a whetstone to manually shave the crystal into a narrow ‘almond’ shape, using the Sanjusangendo’s Basu-Sennin for inspiration. 1500 grit sandpaper was used to “polish” the crystal.

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It can be very difficult to bevel the edges of the wood in such a way that will snugly accept the lens, without the socket being too large or leaving visible gaps after insertion. There is a lot of trial and error involved here; when carving a cavity in the back of the eye socket for the crystal, it is best to exercise extreme patience in order to not remove too much material too quickly, as the wood also becomes very thin and fragile, particularly in the corners.

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The backside of the lens is painted with black for the pupil, and the iris can either be painted or backed with foil. Here, I used fingernail polish for “paint”.

The crystal lens with the pupil & iris is inserted into the carved socket from the back. Note that the back of this lens is flat; often, gyokyan were concave, resulting in a spoon-shaped crystal, which reduced visual distortion. In ancient times, paper was the choice of material to pad the back of the eye, and red-dyed paper was sometimes pressed into the corners to simulate the blood flow.

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A wooden backer and pegs hold the layered components firmly in place from the backside. The end result is a strikingly realistic portrayal of a wet, light-reflecting eye.

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In re-creating the authentic gyokugan process several times over the years, I am convinced that shaping the crystal lenses, though a seemingly simple task, must have been performed by workshop apprentices, as the time investment would just be too demanding for a master busshi to undertake. With a #7 on the MOH scale of hardness, a rock crystal is exceptionally time-consuming to carve. Therefore, I had often wondered if the lens was created before the sockets were carved, or was it the other way around? I am convinced both the lens-shaping and socket carving was a collaborative effort between two or more individuals, with the final touches left to the master busshi for shaping the wooden socket to accept the final gyokugan lenses from the inside.

*Please note that because I have never been formally educated in regards to historical gyokugan production, my conclusions are theoretical and based on experiences in attempting to faithfully replicate the process according to my own research on the subject.

David Bilbrey

Sculptor and Art History hound David Bilbrey lives in Southern California with his wife and two kids

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