Gold in decorative arts

Making the worlds of Buddha and kami grand and impressive in the late Heian period.

Buddhist Ritual Bell with Five-Pronged Vajra Handle (Gokorei) (11-12th Century) by UnknownKyoto National Museum

In the late Heian period, members of the court and aristocracy preoccupied themselves with making the worlds of Buddha and kami (deities) grand and impressive by beautifully adorning the accoutrements of religious rituals and offerings. Metalwork—in particular gilding, which enabled the creation of golden altar equipment—played a significant role in the endeavor to recreate a sacred world. Export lacquerware made during the Momoyama period was also often heavily adorned with gold, and these too were often articles for the altar or religious rituals. The glimmer of gold in decorative art objects responded to the religious zeal of people East and West.

Standing Buddha (4th Century) by UnknownKyoto National Museum

Standing Buddha
4th Century

Although Buddhism was brought to China by at least the first century B.C.E. during the early part of the Late (Eastern) Han dynasty, it was not widely practiced at first. The only known remains of Buddhist sculpture that date back that far appears in such contexts as in bronze “money trees” or tomb walls. From the fifth century onward, Buddhist teachings spread and Buddhist image production flourished under the Northern and Southern dynasties. However, there are several confirmed gilt bronze Buddha statues depicted in older styles that are thought to have been produced even earlier, during the fourth century under the Eastern Jin or Sixteen Dynasties period.

Known as old-style gilt bronze Buddhas, many are seated, but this unusual image depicts a standing Buddha. The lotus flower-topped base was made separately from the figure, which is inserted into the stand, but the image is currently so tightly inserted into the base that the two cannot be separated. There is a discernable inscription on the side of the base reading in Chinese characters, “nine figures produced.”

Strong similarities to Gandharan-style statuary include the hair arrangement on top of the head with strands depicted by incised lines (rather than snail-shell curls), the clear, expressive eyes, and rather thick mustache. The way in which the robe is draped upon the body (with both shoulders covered) is also Indian in style.

These features indicate that this statue could have been produced as early as the fourth century. However, recent research has revealed that among Indian or Gandharan-style images, there were some more recent statues produced from the Northern and Southern Dynasties onward that were based upon the older styles. If this type of research progresses, it may be necessary to reassess production dates.

Head of Priest's Staff (13th Century) by UnknownKyoto National Museum

Head of Priest's Staff
13th Century

This shakujō, or priest’s staff, is one of the eighteen requisite possessions of a Buddhist priest. The staff consists of a head in the form of a metal loop inclosing a number of freely dangling small metal rings that is set on a spike connected to a handle. As the priest hits the staff on the ground while walking, or when he shakes it, the dangling rings jangle, resulting, it is said, in warding off snakes and beasts while he is doing his rounds asking for alms or out on a pilgrimage. In addition, as a sacred Buddhist musical instrument, the staff produces a mystical sound able to dispel the passions of the practitioner and to accelerate the awakening of compassion.

This staff head typifies Kamakura-period styles, with two indentations on both sides of the main loop.

At the top, a sacred jewel (hōjū) sits on curled ferns, while pagoda shapes riding on clouds rest on the upper indentations, and crescent moon shapes representing the diamond tusk (kongōga) lie on the sides above the lower indentation.

A five-elements pagoda stands in the center on the curled ends of the loop, and pure water pitchers rest on each curl. Two jangling rings remain on either side. The copper of their diamond-shaped cross sections has been bent to form a special Japanese quince shape, but the ends do not meet. The spike consists of four segments of lotus petals tightly bound by double rings, each segment having a distinctly different rendering.

Of note is that the MOA museum owns a gilt bronze shakujō head with the same number of rings and similar decoration down to minor details, suggesting that most likely both were made in the same workshop at about the same time. This important piece brings to light the true capacity of Kamakura-period Buddhist implement foundries, for the casting and carved metal finishing are extremely delicate, yet the work was given a solid, sturdiness in the process.

Set of Six Buddhist Ritual Vessels, Inscribed Tō-ji (14th Century) by UnknownKyoto National Museum

Set of Six Buddhist Ritual Vessels, Inscribed Tō-ji
14th Century

Generally, esoteric Buddhist rituals are performed at a square dais set before the image of worship and laden an arrangement of ritual implements. Six vessels with saucers forming a set are lined up on each of the four sides of the dais for offerings of pure water, incense (zukō), and decorative floral garlands (keman; usually a leaf of Japanese star anise). On each side of the dais, an incense burner is placed in the middle and to its left and right are first the water vessels, then the incense vessels, then the flower vessels, after which come rice vessels and flower vases. A whole set for one side of the dais is called an ichimenki. During the actual rites, the three vessels on the right are used at the beginning and the three on the left for the later part of the rite.

Characters reading “Tō-ji” have been incised on the underside of both the vessels and saucers, indicating they belonged among the implements passed down in Kanchi-in sub-temple of Tō-ji, many of which have left the temple by now.

Toiletry Case with Pines and Camellias in Makie From the Sacred Treasures of Asuka Shrine (1390) by UnknownKyoto National Museum

Toiletry Case with Pines and Camellias in Makie From the Sacred Treasures of Asuka Shrine

In Shinto, it is believed that renewing the shrine where the deity resides along with all the furnishing and utensils is to restore life force to that deity. This is why deities are periodically installed in a new shrine and given new sacred objects.

An entry in Kumanosan Shingū shinpō mokuroku (Inventory of Shrine Treasures at the shrines in the Kumano mountains; Edo-period copy in the Kumano Hayatama Grand Shrine with postscript, dated 1390 [Meitoku 1]), records this box as one of thirteen toiletry cases donated to Kumano Hayatama Grand Shrine (Wakayama prefecture) by the emperor, the retired emperor, the Muromachi shogun (Ashikaga Yoshimitsu), and various local lords. Handed down as one of the sacred treasures of Asuka Shrine, a subsidiary shrine of Kumano Hayatama Grand Shrine, it was acquired by the Japanese government in modern times. Among the items belonging to the group, the Kyoto National Museum also stores other lacquered pieces in makie (sprinkled metal design) including boxes for a crown, an official’s wooden sceptre (shaku), robes, shoes, and a clothes rack.

The case contains two nested boxes; the larger is lined with brocade and the smaller decorated with makie. Inside are gold and silverplated bronze items: boxes for incense articles, tooth-blackening utensils, white-face powder, chrysanthemum-shaped dishes, scissors, tweezers, brushes for blackening teeth, eyebrow brushes, ear picks, hairpins, a brush for cleaning combs, and a wide-toothed comb. In addition, it holds a white porcelain dish, a nickel mirror, and a makie comb case containing twenty-nine combs. Although made as offerings to the gods, we can assume that these pieces reflect the cosmetic items used by the medieval aristocracy.

The toiletry case, comb case, and their contentsare all decorated with pine and camellia trees growing on mounds of earth. As symbols of vitality, evergreen trees were often used as motifs on votive items. This toiletry set is fabulously elaborate, the outside of the case decorated with highly-skilled techniques like raised-gold decoration (kintakamakie) on a pear-skin ground of densely-sprinkled particles (tsume nashiji), burnished decoration (togidashi makie), in which a design is revealed by polishing through upper layers of lacquer, aokin kanagai (thin inlaid sheets of cut silver-gold), and tiny silver rivets.

Pyx with Camellias and IHS Insignia in Makie and Mother-of-Pearl Inlay (16-17th Century) by UnknownKyoto National Museum

Pyx with Camellias and IHS Insignia in Makie and Mother-of-Pearl Inlay
16-17th Century

This is a container for Holy Communion wafers. Symbolising the body of Christ, the communion wafer is handed out to believers by the priest during Catholic mass. It holds a smaller nested box and bears the three letters “IHS” on top of the lid, executed in gold hiramakie (flat sprinkled metal decoration) and raden (inlaid mother-ofpearl) on a black lacquered ground. On the sides these same techniques are combined with enashiji (pictorial pear-skin ground, where gold flakes are sprinkled over specific motifs) to depict camellias.

The IHS insignia representing the name of Jesus surrounded by a halo (or perhaps a crown of thorns) and combined with a cross rising from the horizontal of the ‘H’ and a heart pierced by three nails was the emblem of the Jesuit Society, which reached Japan in 1549. The lacquer in makie work on the lid is unfortunately very badly damaged; most of its surface appears to be later restoration work. Although Nanban lacquer portable altars containing religious images, and lecterns to hold Bibles, were made in considerable numbers for wealthy believers, items such as this pyx were utilised only by the priest and therefore not so numerous. This is a very rare item; only a dozen or so exist around the world.

Folding Lectern with IHS Insignia and Linked Hexagrams in Makie and Mother-of-Pearl Inlay (16-17th Century) by UnknownKyoto National Museum

Folding Lectern with IHS Insignia and Linked Hexagrams in Makie and Mother-of-Pearl Inlay
16-17th Century

This folding lectern to hold a Bible bears the Jesuit emblem. Several lacquered lecterns in makie (sprinkled metal design) with IHS insignia are known, but the designs surrounding the emblem differ. This piece is decorated with a geometric design: a chequerboard border enclosing a hexagram lattice structure with interlinked circles and a floral motif, executed in mother-of-pearl inlay and hiramakie (flat sprinkled metal decoration) of fine gold powder resembling gold and silver paintwork. On the reverse of the book-support is a design of orange blossoms incorp orating enashiji (pictorial pear-skin) decoration; the back of the lectern has borders of Nanban arabesques enclosing tightly packed kudzu vine scrolls on the back panel and morning glories on the legs.

Folding stands carved out of a single piece of timber like this are not found in the Japanese carpentry tradition, leading to the conclusion that the structure is taken from Muslim lecterns of the Islamic world. The existence of a lectern in the same shape and construction inlaid with Indian silverwork and another adorned with Chinese metal-leaf decoration suggest that people who had seen Islamic lecterns travelled to Japan and directed the production of the current piece in makie and mother-of-pearl inlay. This item gives us a vivid picture of seaborne commerce in the Great Age of Navigation.

Portable Christian Altar with Flowers and Birds in Makie and Mother-of-Pearl Inlay; Opened (16-17th Century) by UnknownKyoto National Museum

Portable Christian Altar with Flowers and Birds in Makie and Mother-of-Pearl Inlay; Opened
16-17th Century

After the mid-sixteenth century, a steady stream of European missionaries and traders began arriving in Japan. Dubbed nanbanjin, or ‘Southern Barbarians’, these Europeans commissioned Japanese artisans to decorate Christian religious objects and Western-style furniture with makie lacquer, and then exported these objects or took them back to their home countries. Such export items are known as Nanban lacquerware.

This item is a portable Christian altar containing a religious painting intended to be displayed on a wall. This type of portable altar would normally contain a removable framed image, but in this case, it has been painted in oil directly onto the lacquered back panel. In order to express the doctrine of the Trinity—the oneness of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—three male figures with identical faces are portrayed; God the Father is identified by a sun on his chest, his son Jesus by a lamb, and the Holy Spirit by a dove. Images of this kind were hardly ever produced in Europe, as the Catholic church considered it heretical to present these three entities as human beings of the same age with identical facial features, but in the New World, specifically in the viceroyalty of New Spain (Mexico), this clear, comprehensible imagery was accepted, and these images are believed to have been created in large numbers from the seventeenth century onwards. Since pieces with very similar iconography survive in Mexico, we can assume that this oil painting was executed there, during or after the seventeenth century.

The portable altar itself is a very simple rectangular shape with no gable or additional elements. Gold and silver hiramakie (flat sprinkled metal decoration), nashiji (pear-skin ground) and raden (inlaid mother-of-pearl) are used on a black lacquer surface to depict longtailed birds amongst bush clover and camellias on the outside of the doors, and bold grape-vine arabesques on the inside of the doors. The inlaid mother-of-pearl geometric patterns commonly found on Nanban lacquerware do not appear at all.
This simple form with large makie motifs has much in common with pieces such as the portable altar in the Tokyo National Museum containing an image of Saint Stephen in feathermosaic (native Mexican bird-feather collage), and an altar discovered in Puerto Rico, now owned by Taiheiyo Cement. This is one of the very rare examples of an item thought to have been carried on a Spanish boat via the Philippines to Mexico.

Priest's Kasaya with Porny Scrolls and Ritual Buddhist Implements (Known as "Dream Robe") (14th Century) by UnknownKyoto National Museum

Priest's Kasaya with Porny Scrolls and Ritual Buddhist Implements (Known as "Dream Robe")
14th Century

Priest’s kasaya ( J. kesa) are the official garment worn by Buddhist mendicants and characterized by being a large rectangle composed of small pieces of cloth patched together. The kasaya worn by high priests were revered as treasures and particularly in the Chan ( J. Zen) sect, the transmission of a master’s kasaya, authenticated the legitimacy of one’s own religious inheritance and was treated with special respect.

Known as the “Dream Robe” (Ōmu-e), this kasaya is a transmission robe belonging to Jishōin, the mortuary temple for priest Ryūshū Shūtaku (1308–1388) at Nanzen-ji monaste ry in Kyoto. The appellation comes from the legend that on the day after Ryūshū dreamt he had received a robe from the eminent Chinese master Wuzhun Shifan ( J. Bujun Shiban, 1178–1249), someone appeared bringing him Wuzhun’s kasaya.

The distinctive hand-drawn, gold-painted peony scrolls that cover the entire robe, however, bear remarkable resemblance to those on the cover sheets of Korean Goryeo-dynasty sutras. This supports the opinion that the present work― rather than being made in China in the Southern Song (1127–1179) dynasty when Wuzhun was active—was produced on the Korean peninsula at the time of Ryūshū. Since almost no kasaya from the ancient or medieval periods have survived in China or Korea, those preserved in Japan are especially important.

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