Bishamonten, Guardian of the North

1250 - 1300

The Toledo Museum of Art

The Toledo Museum of Art


  • Title: Bishamonten, Guardian of the North
  • Date Created: 1250 - 1300
  • Location Created: Japan
  • Physical Dimensions: h1854 mm (Complete)
  • Catalogue entry: Ferocious Bishamonten is one of the four guardian figures placed at the corners of the main altar in a Buddhist temple. These figures correspond to the four cardinal directions, with Bishamonten representing the north. Bishamonten originated in Indian mythology as the deity Kubera, king of the fertility gods the yakshas, who were believed to control the wealth and bounty of the earth. He came to Japan with many attributes: guardian of the Realm of the North, guardian of Buddhist law, god of victory in war, and god of wealth and good fortune. He is also one of the seven lucky gods of Japan.This life-size image is a fine example of the sculpture of the Kamakura period in Japan, which is characterized by a strong sense of movement, large free-flowing elements, and a new sense of realism. Bishamonten stands on a northern mountaintop with his left hand raised to hold a small pagoda (now missing), symbolic of a treasure house. His raised right arm with curled fist originally held a spear. His billowing sleeves suggest movement, and the demon mask at his waist denotes the subjugation of evil.The method of construction for this sculpture is known as ichiboku zukuri, or single block construction. It was typical in Japan from the ninth to the thirteenth century for sculptures to be carved from one block of wood, like this example, though occasionally some are found with separate pieces for the hands and arms that project from the body (see 2006.122). Traces of gilding remain on this sculpture, and decorative patterns have been worked onto the surface with a lacquer paste called sabi urushi, which consisted of lacquer juice mixed with a ground stone powder.
  • Type: Sculpture
  • Rights: Gift of the Apollo Society
  • External Link: Toledo Museum of Art
  • Medium: Hinoki wood with lacquer paste and traces of gilding


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