Treasures of temples and shrines

Twelve Devas Masks; Bon-ten (Brahman) (10th Century) by UnknownKyoto National Museum

Treasures of temples and shrines

A great majority of the cultural artifacts in Japan today have been preserved at Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. Although there are of course exceptions, religions and faiths have universally been some of the prime motives for humans to create visual and plastic arts. Shown here are objects from the Kyoto National Museum’s collection that were created and treasured for religious purposes, including paintings and decorative art objects used in rituals, or given as offerings to temples and shrines. 

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

Set of Six Buddhist Ritual Vessels, Inscribed Tō-ji; The Back
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.

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

The numerous structural similarities between these six vessels and a set at Saidai-ji temple, Nara bearing an inscription dated 1314 (Shōwa 3), such as their being relatively thick with slightly flared rims and the bowls having tallish backs, suggest the set was made at the end of the Kamakura period. 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.

Twelve Devas; Sui-ten (Varuna) (1127) by UnknownKyoto National Museum

Twelve Devas; Sui-ten (Varuna)

The esoteric Buddhist ceremony called the Latter Seven-Day Rite (Goshichinichi no mishiho) began on the eighth day of the first month of 834 ( Jōwa 1) with the petition of the founder of the Shingon sect, Kūkai (774–835), to the emperor to observe this New Year rite in the Shingon-in chapel on the grounds of the Imperial Palace in Kyoto. Hanging scrolls of the Twelve Devas were hung to protect the chapel and were usually stored together with other ritual utensils in the treasure house at Tō-ji, the head temple of the Shingon sect in Kyoto.

The original Twelve Devas, which were used, were lost in a fire that destroyed the Tō-ji treasure house in the third month of 1127 (Daiji 2). The present set were newly painted in the same year. At first, decreed by the Tō-ji Elder Shōkaku, the Tō-ji priest Kakunin commissioned a new set to be modeled after Kūkai’s Twelve Devas that were transmitted in the Ono Sutra Repository (at Kajū-ji Temple) and that then belonged to the Uji Sutra Repository (at Byōdō-in Temple).

However, the cloistered Emperor Toba criticized the new rendition as “careless and rough” and had another set modeled after the posterior wall of the En-dō Hall at Ninna-ji Temple made. The works here are generally thought to come from this latter set, which has been passed down the generations at Tō-ji along with painted images of the Five Radiant Wisdom Kings (Skt. Vidyaraja, J. Godaison). The colorful patterns and delicate cut-gold leaf (kirikane) motifs capture the viewer’s eye in these masterful paintings that represent the height of court culture.

Twelve Devas Masks; Bon-ten (Brahman) (10th Century) by UnknownKyoto National Museum

Twelve Devas Masks; Bon-ten (Brahman)
10th Century

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).

Landscape Screen (Senzui Byōbu) (11th Century) by UnknownKyoto National Museum

Landscape Screen (Senzui Byōbu)
11th Century

This folding screen, which originally belonged to Tō-ji, the renowned monastery of the Shingon sect, was used in the esoteric Buddhist initiation ritual, kanjō. Formerly used by courtiers as decorative interior furnishings, such screens were converted for ritual use to provide a dignified ambience in this Buddhist ceremony. As the initiation ritual became popularly observed in the twelfth century, the form of the ceremony as well as the motifs of the screens gradually came to be formalized. The painting here, thought to date to the latter half of the eleventh century, is the oldest extant screen of this type and exemplifies an interior furnishing from the period of imperial rule in Japan.

Although the theme is unclear, the motif is of Chinese origin, making the work a Chinesestyle painting (kara-e in Japanese). The depicted style also comes from China, from the Tang dynasty, though the work here lacks the severity of Chinese paintings. According to Masakane Kyō ki, the journal of Lord Fujiwara no Masakane (1079–1143), the late-ninth-century court painter Kanaoka of the Kose school painted as many as fifteen mountains, while the early eleventh-century artist Hirotaka depicted five or six, indicating that rendering mountains repetitively in a single scene no longer prevailed in Hirotaka’s time. The present painting can be understood to follow this latter trend. The refined, gentle style here reflects the “Japanese cultural” nature of this work.

Landscape of Mount Kōya (13-14th Century) by UnknownKyoto National Museum

Landscape of Mount Kōya
13-14th Century

This work originally belonged to Kongōzanmai-in Temple on Mount Kōya in Wakayama prefecture and appears to have been used in the esoteric Buddhist initiation ceremony, kanjō. This large pair of folding screens captures Kongōbu-ji, the head Shingon temple on Mount Kōya, starting with the main gate at the far left and ending with Oku-no-in, the mausoleum for the founder of the Shingon sect, Kūkai (774–835). Central to the overall composition are the grounds of Kongōzanmai-in in the upper half of panels five and six of the right screen.
Although the transition of the four seasons can be seen here, the seasonal changes have been reversed from the order traditionally found in Japanese paintings, which are usually viewed from right to left. The reason for this reversal may have been due to the importance placed on the geographical relationship of the buildings to the scenery.

Landscape of Mount Kōya (13-14th Century) by UnknownKyoto National Museum

This resplendent set of screens has generally been dated to around the first half of the fourteenth century, which marked the golden age of Kongōsanmai-in. The detailed rendering of the temple buildings, which offers one of the only remaining glimpses of Mount Kōya at the end of the Kamakura period, together with the picturesque depiction of the four seasons, make this work an outstanding example of yamato-e, or classical Japanese painting. The modern Japanese artist Dōmoto Inshō (1891–1975) formerly owned these screens.

Otokoyama Hachiman Shrine Mandala (13-14th Century) by UnknownKyoto National Museum

Otokoyama Hachiman Shrine Mandala
13-14th Century

This shrine mandala captures a scene from the front of the main building of Iwashimizu Hachiman Shrine in Tsuzuki county, Yamashiro province (now Yawata city in Kyoto prefecture). Otokoyama is a sobriquet for Hatogamine (“Pigeon Peak”, elevation approximately 143 meters), where the shrine is located, and has been known since early times as a celebrated poetic place name for its distinctive shape.

The three Shinto deities in the main shrine in the upper half of the painting and the four deities in the auxiliary shrines below appear in their Buddhist manifestations. At the center of the main shrine is the Buddha Amida (Skt. Amitābha) with his attendant bodhisattvas Kannon (Skt. Avalokitêśvara) on the right and Seishi (Skt. Mahāsthāmaprāpta) on the left. Below on the two sides of the stonepaved path are arranged Amida (in Takeuchi Shrine) and Seishi (Kōra Shrine) in the upper and lower left respectively, and Eleven-headed Kannon (Wakamiya Shrine) and Fugen (Skt. Samantabhadra; Wakamiyaden Shrine) in the upper and lower right. Although this painting somewhat differs from the actual scenery, the depiction of the shrine visitors and the pigeons, which represent the messengers of the shrine, on the rooftop of the inner sanctuary vividly convey the ambience at the front of the main building in the late Kamakura period.

An inscription from a restoration treatment in 1588 (Tenshō 16) on the back side of the hanging scroll records a previous inscription for a restoration in 1479 (Bunmei 11). According to this earlier inscription, members of the Koga court family, whose tutelary deity was enshrined at Iwashimizu Hachiman Shrine, donated this painting as the central image to be used during the Hachiman cofraternity gatherings held on the eleventh day of each month. The elder statesman of the Meiji period, Inoue Kaoru (1868–1912), who was known as an avid collector of antique art, once owned this work.

Tutelary Deities and Administrators of Wakasa Province (13th Century) by UnknownKyoto National Museum

Tutelary Deities and Administrators of Wakasa Province
13th Century

This narrative handscroll has a distinctive composition; it consists of the origin of the Ichinomiya and Ninomiya shrines in Wakasa province (now southwestern Fukui prefecture) with descriptive annotations for each scene, followed by portraits of successive generations of Shinto priests of the Kasa clan who administered the shrines. In scenes from the first existing section of the scroll, the ancestor of the shrine priests of the Kasa family, Takafumi, respectively welcomes the male deity Wakasahiko and the female deity Wakasahime, who descend on the white cliffs at the source of the sacred Yoshikawa river in the village of Saigō in Onyū county, and builds the first shrine, Ichinomiya, for him and the second shrine, Ninomiya, for her.

The original first section, which may have consisted of text and illustrations of the descent of Wakasahiko, has been lost, however, the scene of Takafumi running after Wakasahiko, who rides upon a white horse on a cloud, to determine a suitable place for this deity’s shrine, remains intact. The next scene shows Takafumi, sitting upright with a gohei (Shinto purification rod decorated with folded paper streamers) in hand, in front of the Ichinomiya Shrine that he built, followed by an illustration of the Kurodōji Shrine in which Takafumi himself is later enshrined. Next is the manifestation of the female deity Wakasahime on the white cliffs, followed by another scene of Takafumi again holding a gohei in front of a shrine.

The second section features the shrine priests, facing one another in pairs: one as a divine figure in formal court attire, seated on a raised dais (raiban); the other in informal court attire, seated on a tatami mat. The portraits of the priests up to the twelfth-generation Kagetsugu (1205–1299) were produced in the Kamakura period, while the priests of later generations were painted during the early modern period ending with the thirtyfirst generation Masafusa, who died in 1800. The origin tale of the shrines and the portrait of the priests up to the twelfth generation are rendered in sharp, elegant lines and bright colors. The powerful brushstrokes used to distinctively depict the priests are also outstanding and exemplify the stylistic succession of the traditional nise-e, or realistic portraits, in which fine lines were skillfully used.

Origin of Onsen-ji Temple (Onsenji Engi) (15th Century) by UnknownKyoto National Museum

Origin of Onsen-ji Temple (Onsenji Engi)
15th Century

Illustrated here are the origin and miracles associated with Onsen-ji Temple, located in the Arima hot springs area in Settsu province (now in Hyogo prefecture), which the poetess Sei Shōnagon (c. 966–1025) mentions in The Pillow Book as a celebrated hot springs since ancient times. The bottom level depicts the legend of Onsen-ji’s founding priest Gyōki (668–749) overseeing the construction of the temple. Above this appears scenes of Priest Son’e of Kiyoshikōjin Seicho-ji Temple who returned from the underworld, starting at the lower right and moving visually upward in a zigzag to Son’e reading the Lotus Sutra at the palace of King Enma (Skt. Yama), the judge of the dead (on the left, slightly above the center of the scroll).

This painting with its vibrant colors and lively figures appears to have been made in the first half of the fifteenth century to be used for etoki, or pictorial storytelling, by etoki priests at Onsen-ji Temple who, according to fifteenthcentury records, received a fee from those who went to bathe in the restorative waters of Arima. This hanging scroll originally belonged to the temple, however, it appears that the work was taken from the temple when it fell into decline in the sixteenth century. The inscription written on its box reveals that the painting had belonged to Kangaku-in, a subtemple of Mii-dera Temple in Shiga prefecture, in 1743 (Kanpō 3). Later, the painting went to Saishō-in, a subtemple of Byōdō-in Temple in Uji, before it entered the Kyoto National Museum collection.

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.

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

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.

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

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.

Outer Robe with Flower-Lozenge Motif From the Sacred Treasures of Asuka Shrine (1390) by UnknownKyoto National Museum

Outer Robe with Flower-Lozenge Motif From the Sacred Treasures of Asuka Shrine

In Shinto, the indigenous religion of Japan, the re-creation of the deity’s domicile and belongings is believed to impart new life energy to the deity, so the rebuilding and rededicating of the sacred shrines and treasures take place in periodic cycles. At the Asuka Shrine, the former tutelary shrine of the Kumano Hayatama Shrine of the Three Kumano Shrines, the custom of renewing the sacred treasures takes place once every thirty-three years.

According to the shrines, the sacred treasures from Asuka Shrine, now at Kyoto National Museum, along with the sacred treasures of Kumano Hayatama Shrine (stored there), were donated in 1390 (Meitoku 1) by powerful men of the time on the orders of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1358–1408) and consist of boxes, furnishings, and court clothing. These, including other pieces probably added in later centuries, occupy a most important place in the history of medieval functional arts as they provide rare source material due to the verifiable time and background of their production.

The sacred treasures of Asuka Shrine form a set for a male deity. The courtier’s cloak ( J. hō), shown here, can be categorized as a courtier’s round-collared nōshi-style robe, which has been tailored to larger than human proportions. Although no actual court costumes remain from the medieval period, through these sacred shrine treasures we can gather some knowledge of what they must have actually looked like.

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