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Conserving a hanging scroll painting: Benzaiten

Japanese Buddhist hanging scrolls are amongst the most lavishly produced paintings and include a range of complex scroll-mount styles and silk designs. The elaborate mounting silks often incorporate gold threads (kinran) and the metal fittings attached to the scroll are usually gilded. The use of gold as a pigment is also found on many Buddhist paintings as well as gold leaf.

The conservator must be familiar with the wide range of techniques incorporated in the production of Buddhist paintings. One of the most deceptive and potentially problematic of these techniques is Ura zai shiki, which involves the application of colour and/or gold pigment to the reverse of the painting. This is done to enhance portraits of Buddhist deities and has the effect of introducing depth and lustre.

If the conservation process is likely to involve the removal of all the paper linings, great care must be taken so that any pigment attached to the reverse of the painting remains undisturbed. In this painting of Benzaiten gold pigment had been applied to the reverse of the flames on the corona, and gofun, a white pigment made from ground oyster shell, had been applied behind the face of the deity.