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Twelve Devas Masks; Nitten (Surya)

Unknown10th Century

Kyoto National Museum

Kyoto National Museum

Of twelve deva masks formerly housed at Tō-ji Temple, seven are now part of the Kyoto National Museum’s collection. Two other masks, thought to be in the same group of twelve, are in the collection of the Honolulu Museum of Art.
The Twelve Devas are heavenly beings that reign over the eight directions, heaven, earth, the sun, and the moon. The origin of these deities can be traced to Hindu belief. There are many extant painted depictions of the Twelve Devas in Japan, although the mask form is extremely rare. At first, the masks were used during initiation rites at Tō-ji Temple and were later repaired and put to different use in pagoda offering rites. The seven masks in the Kyoto National Museum collection include ones made from paulownia wood such as Nitten (Skt. Āditya), Taishakuten (Skt. Indra), and this gentle bodhisattva-like figure with a calm, compassionate expression, Bonten (Skt. Brahmā). Also included are masks made from Japanese cypress such as an aged Fūten (Skt. Vāyu) and Katen (Skt. Agni), and an angry Bishamonten (Skt. Vaiśravana) and Ishanaten (Daijizaiten, Skt. Īśāna). It is possible that the different types of wood were chosen based on the manner in which they would be carved (deep carving for the aged and fearful expressions that display a sense of movement, and shallow carving for more compassionate countenances).
Around the end of the tenth century, Kōjō, father of the Buddhist sculptor Jōchō (d. 1057), began the systemization of Buddhist sculptors. Their studio was the locus of the production of Buddhist sculptures that were imbued with a sense of nobility. The style of the masks here is highly similar to sculpted works created around this time. It is possible that these masks are the Twelve Deva masks that records indicate were removed from Tō-ji Temple during a fire in 1000 (Chōhō 2).

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