En no Gyoja was the legendary founder of the Shugendo sect, which emphasized the practice of religious austerities, and he thus came to represent the archetypical ascetic recluse. He is said to have died in the early eighth century after living a hermetic life in the mountains. Because he shunned the established religious orders in the capital at Nara in favor of a solitary, itinerant life in the southern mountains, subsequent generations of clerics and laymen came to regard him as a model for those who wished to pursue religious devotion in a secular world. During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in particular the devotees of austere religious practices claimed En no Gyoja as the patriarch of Shugendo.
This sculpture is one of a small number of posthumous portraits of En no Gyoja that survive. Since they were not produced until the Kamakura period, all such portraits are imaginary. This characteristic representation shows him as a bearded old man seated on a rocky ledge dressed in a monk’s robe with a hood and cloak of leaves—references to his secluded life in the mountains—holding a staff and sutra scroll in his hands. The eyes are fixed as if in a hypnotic gaze, and the mouth is open to expose the teeth and tongue, as if En no Gyoja were chanting the scriptures or delivering a lecture. Particular attention is paid to the signs of age and hardship in the priest’s wizened body—the sinuous musculature, wrinkled joints, and bony knees, legs, and feet.