Caisson was originally the decorative courtyard design in the ancient Chinese palace architecture. The name “zaojing” 藻井 (caisson) is derived from the combination of crossbeams forming a “jing” (well-like pattern) and the “zao” (colorful) designs painted on the wooden beams. A “zaojing” may be described as “the ceiling of a mansion with either a round fountain or square well-pattern with lotus decoration.” Caissons originally adopted the square-reciprocal-framed structures, which consist of linear wood or stone members, mutually supporting within a closed circuit. In the Han dynasty (202BCE-220CE), the caisson had become a common and mature building part in Chinese architecture, which could be observed in the poems and literature at that time.
Painted with the illustrations of the Great Compassion Mantra Verses
The three wooden caissons in the Great Compassion Building of Longhu Nunnery are painted with the illustrations of the Great Compassion Mantra Verses. The artists of these illustrations were specially invited from Tainan. In 2017, due to the demolition and reconstruction of the temple, the abbess donated the caissons to the Buddha Museum. The architectural structure and painted images show a rare craftsmanship that was retained during a time period when religious architecture and historical culture underwent changes. Due to its importance, it has been designated as an antique.
The three caissons are structured differently from regular caissons designed with multiple layers and bracket sets. Instead, it is shaped as a rare dome-shaped ceiling similar to Chinese Song dynasty octagonal caissons. The central caisson is in the form of a dome. The flanking caissons are composed of curved wood structures conjoined using splicing method. The 24 columns used for lighting and ventilation under the caissons show Taiwanese carpentry skills influenced by Japanese architecture, and they were decorated with the openwork of lotuses and lotus roots to symbolize fire prevention. The wood caissons were made of Parashorea and Taiwanese Elm, which were often used during the Japanese occupation period. It also reflects the use of local materials at that time.
Although the Great Compassion Mantra Caissons were painted according to the popular folk version at that time, the painter, however, presented the Bodhisattvas in a solemn style. The text and inscriptions were written in clerical script. The painter used fingers and palms to apply the colors, creating a gradient effect on the face and hands of each bodhisattva. The three wooden Caissons illustrate the 84 verses of the Great Compassion Mantra and the Four Heavenly Kings. The first sixteen verses were painted counterclockwise from the central caisson, and the remaining verses were painted on the flanking caissons. Apart from the 88 illustrations, there are also 16 Buddhist stories, verses and advices, forming 104 images in all. The four canopies painted on the flanking caissons symbolize freedom from the Eight Dangers. The central caisson is surrounded with the Chinese character of “heart” and “Buddha”, indicating that “one should purify one’s heart before seeing the Buddha land.”
Buddha Museum's First Antique
On July 2017, the three precious antiquities with more than 60 years history are moved to Buddha Museum for preservation by the Institute of Cultural Heritage Research Preservation, Ministry of Culture. Over a year of professional maintenance, the caissons underwent reversible and panchromatic processing on necessary parts. The team also discussed with Venerable Ru Chang, Director of Fo Guang Shan Buddha Museum, and Venerable Hui Zhi, Director of FGS Pure Land Cultural & Educational Foundation on how to better preserve the caissons.
In celebration of the Buddha’s Birthday Celebration, the three caissons will be installed at the Main Hall in front of the Avalokitesvara Shrine on 11th May, 2019. The ceremony will be hosted by Abbot Most Venerable Hsin Bao. By means of Avalokitesvara’s great compassion, we hope that visitors can gain confidence and skillful means, and be filled with joy and hope.