The Buddha is believed to have had many lives before being born as Siddhartha Gautama. Stories of his past lives are known as jatakas ('birth stories'). They play an important role in teaching Buddhist values.
The Vessantara Jataka is the last and most popular of the jataka tales. Here the Buddha was born as Prince Vessantara of the Sivi Kingdom, a very generous man who gave away everything, including his wife and children, to help others. His actions demonstrate the virtue of generosity, which in Buddhism is one of the 'perfections' required to achieve enlightenment.
The tale is often illustrated in Southeast Asian and Sri Lankan art. Buddhists can gain merit by making and commissioning these images. This display, drawn from the Ashmolean's own collection, highlighted a selection of Burmese and Sri Lankan drawings, paintings and woodcarvings of the story dating to the 19th century.