Death, Third of the Four Sights seen by Prince Siddhartha

Myanmar, Death, Third of the Four Sights seen by Prince Siddhartha, 1890 - 1910, Burma, wood, pigment, metal, fibre, 90.0 x 38.0 x 48.0 cm (body with crows), 24.0 x 36.0 x 16.0 cm (vulture); Gift of Barrie and Judith Heaven 2010, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide.

This sculpture displays a confronting level of detail only gleaned from first-hand observation of the transformation of a body after death. The bloated extremities, bodily fluids leaking from under the bulging eyes, swollen tongue protruding from the mouth as well as a vulture and crows feasting on the remains are evidence of the process of decay and ultimately dissolution. This was a common sight at cremation grounds and cemeteries in Burma when this work was made around 1900. The unknown artist has gone to great lengths to present a realistic body and has even included tattoos and, at one time, a hairpiece, as shown by the nails along the hairline.

Death was the third sculpture in a set of four, commonly known in Buddhism as the Four Sights, and was once installed in a Burmese monastery setting. Four Sights refers to the defining episode in the life of Prince Siddhartha, when he ventured out beyond the walls of his father’s palace for the first time and saw an old man, a sick man, a corpse and an ascetic, and was filled with revulsion at his luxurious existence.

Four Sights functions as a reminder of Siddhartha’s decision to renounce his father’s kingdom and embark on a spiritual search for inner peace. This journey culminated in his achieving enlightenment at Bodhgaya, northern India, from which moment he became known as the Buddha, or the Fully Awakened One.

One of the key teachings of Buddhism is that an understanding of the reality of death – here graphically depicted – can lead to profound wisdom and peace of mind. Contemplation on the impermanence of the body became an increasingly popular subject in Southeast Asia during the nineteenth century. It appears in temple mural paintings, cloth banners and manuscript illustrations as well as in sculptures. It is possible that the subject developed in monastery art as a substitute for actual graveyard contemplations at a time of changing mortuary practices. Cemeteries were once very unpleasant places littered with the remains of rotting corpses after secondary burial or wood-pyre cremation – places fit for scavengers like vultures and crows or for monks’ meditations on the transience of bodily life.