Japan – Asuka (538-710), Heian (794-1203) and Yamato-e style

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Shaka triad
Kudara Kannon
Sho Kannon
Takamatsuzuka Tomb murals
Ryōkai mandala
Amida by Jōchō
Senzui byōbu
Statue of Kōmokuten
Fugen Enmei
Genji Monogatari Emaki
Illustration Lotus Sutra
Illustrated Legends of the Kitano Tenjin Shrine
Diary of Lady Murasaki
Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji
The Great Wave off Kanagawa

The Asuka Period lasted from 538-710 or 592-645, its beginning could be said to overlap with the preceding Kofun period. The Asuka period was characterised by significant artistic, social, and political changes, it was much affected by the arrival of Buddhism from China. This was also the period when the country;s name changed from Wa to Nihon.

The Nara Period ran from 710-794, Japanese society during this period was predominately agricultural and village life. Most of the villagers followed Shintoism, a religion based on the worship of natural and ancestral spirits named kami.

The Heian period is the last division of classical Japanese history, running from 794 to c1200; Heian means peace. . It is a period in Japanese history when Chinese influences were in decline and the national culture matured. During the Heian period the real power was wielded by the Fujiwara clan, an aristocratic family that intermarried with the imperial family. The Heian period is considered to be the peak for the Japanese imperial court and noted for its art, especially poetry and literature.

Two types of Japanese script emerged, including katakana, a phonetic script which was abbreviated into hiragana, a cursive alphabet with a unique writing method distinctive to Japan.

Yamato-e is a style of Japanese painting inspired by Chinese Tang dynasty paintings. It was fully developed by the late Heian period and is considered the classical Japanese style. The term Yamato-e has been used to distinguish work from contemporary Chinese-style paintings called kara-e, inspired by the Chinese Song and Yuan dynasties ink wash paintings.

Characteristic features of Yamato-e include many small figures and careful depictions of details of buildings and other objects. The selection of only elements of a scene to be fully depicted, the rest either ignored or covered by an oblique view from above showing interiors of buildings as though through a cutaway roof, and very stylised depictions of landscape.


The Shaka triad or Buddha Shaka and Attendant Bodhisattvas is by Tori Busshi. It is located in the Kondō of the Hōryū-ji temple at Ikaruga, Nara. The gilt bronze sculpture dates from 623 CE and is considered to be Tori’s masterpiece.

The sculpture features a Buddha figure seated on a rectangular dais. The robes flow down the front of the platform and his head is surrounded by a flaming halo, in which are seated the Seven Buddhas of the Past.

Image source: pitt.edu

Image source: khanacademy.org

The life-size Kudara Kannon is carved from a single block of camphor wood. It represents the bodhisttava of compassion.

It is one of the best known, Buddhist sculptures of the Asuka (538-710) period. This was the first cultural property in Japan to be designated as a ‘national treasure’. The Kudara in its name is the Japanese term for Baekje, one of the three historical kingdoms of Korea.
A 189 cm copy in bronze of the Bosatsu Bodhisattva or Sho Kannon, which is held at the Yakushi-ji temple in Nara Japan. Bodhisattva choose not to enter Nirvana after attaining enlightenment, and instead remain in the life–death cycle to redeem other souls.

The original bronze gilt statue from the early 8th c was held at the National Museum of Tokyo, but is not in good shape.

Image source: Wikimedia commons

Image source: .japantimes.co.jp

Prior to the Yamato-e period it became popular to use Chinese Tang-style murals. The image is of a fresco in the Takamatsuzuka Tomb or ‘Tall Pine Tree Ancient Burial Mound’, It is a 7th/8th c circular royal tomb in Asuka village, Nara Japan. The murals red, blue and gold paint and silver foil.
Two Buddhist monks, Saichō and Kūkai (aka Kobo Daishi), traveled to China returned to found the two Japanese schools of esoteric Buddhism: Tendai, established by Saichō, and Shingon, established by Kūkai.

One of the things they brought back with them was the notion of the mandala, diagrams of the world within Hindu and Buddhist symbolism. The images show the Ryōkai, or two worlds’, mandala. The one on the left and placed on the West Wall of a temple is the Womb World, the one on the right (and East Wall) is the Diamond World). These are colour on silk and date to the 9th c.

Image source: khanacademy.org

Image source: khanacademy.org

The Amida gilded wood sculpture in the Phoenix Hall at Byōdō-in, Uji Japan is the only work still extant by Jōchō, an influential sculptor who popularized the yosegi technique, sculpting a single figure out of many pieces of wood. He received a number of commissions from the Fujiwara family. He redefined the approach to body proportions for Buddhist imagery and organized fellow sculptors into a guild. His style spread across Japan and defined Japanese sculpture for the next 150 years. He died in 1057 CE.
One of the earliest examples of Heian-period yamato-e landscape painting. Senzui byōbu or folding screens. The image is a 11th c six-screen painting on silk of mountains and waters. It is 146 x 43 cms, designated as a National Treasure and is on show at Kyoto National Museum.
Image source: khanacademy.org

Image source: Wikimedia commons

A 12th c 66 cm high wooden statue of Kōmoku-ten (Virupaksa), the Guardian or Heavenly King of the West, one of four Shitenno. He holds a writing brush and sutra scroll. Each of the four igure stands on a writhing demon, symbolizing dominance over any enemies of Buddhism. Held at the Tokyo National Museum
Painting of Fugen Enmei (Samantabhadra) the bodhisattva of ‘Universal Virtue who Prolongs Life’.

The 12th c painting is coloured ink, gold and silver on silk, 142 x 88 cms

Image source: Wikimedia commons

Image source: Wikimedia commons

The Genji Monogatari Emaki, aka The Tale of Genji scroll, is a famous illustrated hand scroll of a Japanese literature classic. It is dated to c1120–1140. The Genji is the oldest surviving monogatari scroll and is also the oldest surviving non-Buddhist scroll in Japan.

The paintings were produced by ‘tsukuri-e’ process, which is associated with Yamato-e, where the initial outlines are hidden beneath layers of colour, and a visible outline is added later.

The surviving sections, are mounted for conservation reasons, and represent only a small portion of the original work. This is divided between two museums in Japan, the Tokugawa Art Museum and the Gotoh Museum, and are only lightly exhibited for conservation reasons.

The top image shows a scene of Azumaya. The middle is the ‘sawarabi’ scene.
The bottom image depicts the ‘yadorigi gi’ chapter.
Illustrated section of the Lotus Sūtra, from the Heike Nōkyō a 34-scroll narrative of a collection of texts, dated 1164-1167. It was an offering of the military leader Taira Kiyomori.

The Lotus Sutra is one of the most popular and influential Mahayana sutras.

Image source: Wikimedia commons

Image source: Wikimedia commons

The image is the Shigisan-engi or ‘Legend of Mount Shigi’ tells the story of the 9th c Shingon monk Myoren, who founded the Chogosonshi-ji temple.

The story is set among ordinary country people, and depicted by one continuous picture with a common background of about 9m in length. The same characters reappear in different scenes. The narrative contains miracles, this selction shows a famous episode of the ‘flying storehouse’.
This late 13th c (Kamakura period) hand scroll is one of five that illustrate Japanese legends at the Kitano Tenjin Shrine in Kyoto.
The 29cm width scrolls vary in length, they are produced in ink, colour, and cut gold on paper.

Image source: metmuseum.org

The Diary of Lady Murasaki is a collection of diary fragments written by Murasaki Shikibu, an 11th-c Japanese Heian era lady-in-waiting and writer. It is written in kana, at the time a newly developed writing system for vernacular Japanese, Its use was more common among women, as they were unschooled in Chinese. It emphasises important events rather than ordinary day-to-day life and the entries do not follow a strict chronology. The work includes vignettes, waka poems, and a section written in the form of a long letter. It is dated to 1008-1010 CE.
Image source: Wikimedia commons

Image source: Wikimedia commons

Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji is a series of landscape prints by the Japanese ukiyo-e artist
Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849).

The 1830-1832 series depicts Mount Fuji from different locations and in various seasons and weather conditions. The success of the publication led to another ten prints being added to the series.

Among the prints are three of Hokusai’s most famous: The Great Wave off Kanagawa (see below) Fine Wind, Clear Morning (top image here) and Thunderstorm Beneath the Summit (middle image). The bottom image is Shore of Tago Bay, Ejiri at Tōkaidō
The 26 x 38 cm colour woodblock, Great Wave off Kanagawa (aka The Wave), This was the first of Hokusai’s series published 1829-1833 in the late Edo period. The wave is threatening three boats in Sagami Bay, Kanagawa Prefecture, with mount Fuji in the background. It is often considered to be a tsunami, but experts suggest it is more likely a rogue wave. It is considered to be the most recognizable work of Japanese art in the world.
Image source: Wikimedia commons

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