Computed tomography scanning of the Freer Gallery of Art’s lacquer Buddha at the National Museum of Natural History. (Freer|Sackler Gallery of Art/Freer|Sackler Gallery of Art)

In the 6th and 7th centuries, Chinese artisans made human-size statues of the Buddha primarily from layers of lacquer, a tree resin. Only three from that era are known to survive, yet seeing them all could hardly be simpler for Washingtonians at the moment. They’re sitting side-by-side in a gently lighted room at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

One belongs to the Freer Gallery of Art, the Sackler’s older sister. The others come from Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, which have never lent them. Arranging the loans, as well as curating the exhibition, was the responsibility of Donna Strahan, the Freer/Sackler’s head of conservation and scientific research. (It probably helped that she had previously worked at both the Met and the Walters.)

The statues show various incarnations of the Buddha, seated in meditative poses. The renderings are relatively flat, as was the style in China at the time, yet include three-dimensional details in the faces and the one-shoulder, Indian-style robes.

A Buddha statue, made of hollow-core lacquer with pigment and gilding, from China’s Tang dynasty (618–907), early 7th century. It’s from the Freer Gallery in Washington. (Neil Greentree/Freer|Sackler Gallery of Art)

The figures are expressive and well-preserved but not intact. Missing are halos and hands, which may have been wooden. Layers of brightly hued paint and gold leaf have worn away. Two of the statues have ragged holes in their backs, probably the fault of looters.

Asia holds uncountable numbers of Buddha images, and some — such as the massive outdoor sculptures on Lantau Island, Hong Kong, and in Kamakura, Japan — are conspicuous and well-known to tourists. But many are cloistered in temples, revealed to visitors only occasionally or not at all.

No one knows how the three statues in the Sackler’s “Secrets of the Lacquer Buddha” were displayed before they became the property of American museums. But even if they were openly shown, the figures are part of Buddhism’s clandestine tradition. All three pieces’ interiors would have been stuffed with unseen treasures such as gems, gold, fragrant wood and sutra scrolls.

The Freer and Met sculptures, so similar that scholars think they were originally made as part of a set of three or four, have hollow cores. They were constructed atop clay forms that were removed when the process was complete. The Walters Buddha, the oldest of the three, has a wooden core. Although more solid than the other two, the statue has a central cavity, once accessed by a now-missing door.

The Buddha may have not wished for his teachings to be turned into hidden talismans. But people just love secrets.

The statues’ interior chambers and missing contents aren’t their only enigmas. The Sackler exhibition is devoted as much to science as art and religion. The Freer’s lacquer Buddha has been extensively analyzed with such techniques as X-radiography, computerized tomography, fluorescence analysis and scanning electron microscope. The results of the tests are available on two computer screens that are part of the show.

Lacquer is commonplace in Asian art museums; the Freer and Sackler own many objects that gleam with the resinous varnish. But most of them are lacquer-coated boxes, vessels or furniture, usually made of wood, metal or leather.

A Buddha from the Sui dynasty from the Walters Art Museum. (The Walters Art Museum/The Walters Art Museum)

A Buddha from the Tang dynasty, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art/The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund)

These three Buddhas are different. They’re constructed chiefly of lacquer, which Strahan calls “the first plastic.” That makes them light — the hollow ones weigh about 30 pounds each — and vulnerable. It’s possible that some of the lost ones were destroyed in fires that incinerated wooden temples.

Although it can burn, lacquer is safer from another of wood’s nemeses: insects. The sap of the Chinese lacquer tree and similar species is related to poison ivy and thus toxic. Bugs avoid it.

To give it greater bulk, the statues’ lacquer was mixed with many materials, including cloth strips, sawdust, partly burned bone and blood. The Sackler also analyzed an 8th-century lacquer Bodhisattva head (represented in the show by a facsimile made with a 3-D printer) that contains human blood.

The purpose and source of that last ingredient is unknown, and may not have chemical value or ritual significance. It’s possible that the artist simply cut himself accidentally while working on the piece, Strahan notes.

More grisly fusions of lacquer and human have been found in one ancient Buddha statue, which contains the mummified remains of a monk.

Such sculptures, unlike bronze and marble ones, aren’t simply their surfaces. Whatever secrets they hide can be so deeply entombed that even computer-age technology has yet to detect them all.

If you go
Secrets of the Lacquer Buddha

Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave. SW.

Dates: Through June 10.

Admission: Free.