Faith and renewal: Nara and the British Museum
Nara was the capital of Japan from AD 710–784. Situated in the west-central part of the country, Nara was the eastern terminus of the Silks Roads that brought Buddhism to Japan, transforming indigenous society. The great Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines of the city were founded in this early period and have an unbroken tradition of some 13 centuries to the present day. In 1180 and again in 1567, great destruction was suffered during civil wars, but each time the city and its great religious institutions have risen again from the ashes – rebuilt thanks to the generosity of thousands of pious donors. It’s an inspiring story.
In Nara: sacred images from early Japan, religious sculptures and ritual objects generously loaned by the temples, shrines and museums of Nara Prefecture are displayed alongside important Nara paintings from the collection of the British Museum. Sculptures and paintings complement each another and give a rounder and deeper appreciation of this ancient city and its remarkable history. In recent years I have worked on exhibitions featuring the art of more recent periods – shunga, Hokusai and manga – so it is rewarding to go back to more ancient roots of Japanese culture.
Symbolic of Nara and its periodic renewal is the imposing 15-metre-high bronze Vairocana Buddha of Tōdaiji temple, originally consecrated by Emperor Shōmu in AD 752, and recast and re-consecrated after each great fire (image 1 above). Amazingly, Birth of the Buddha and ablution basin (image 2 above) may actually have been used at the original consecration. Scented water was poured over the Buddha figure into the basin, evoking the bathing of a new-born baby.
The special Nara displays are shown in two key spaces at the Museum: The Asahi Shimbun Displays in Room 3, and the Mitsubishi Corporation Japanese Galleries, Rooms 92–94. 15 extraordinary treasures have been loaned by Nara, dating from about AD 600 to 1400, including no less than five classified as National Treasures and six as Important Cultural Properties. Intermingled with these are eight fine medieval Nara paintings from the British Museum’s own collection (image 3 above).
Through these sacred treasures we can tell the stirring stories of the great Nara temples and shrines. We can also give glimpses into the intricate hierarchy of Buddhas and bodhisattvas of the great Buddhist religion that was introduced to Japan from China and Korea around the 6th century AD. Admirably, Buddhism soon found accommodation with indigenous Japanese beliefs in the spirits of nature and ancestors, known as kami worship (modern Shinto). Over time, native kami came to be regarded as local manifestations , avatars and protectors of the ‘original Buddhas’ (honjibutsu).
The combination of previously distinct religious beliefs (called ‘syncretism’) underpinned the great Nara shrine-temple ‘multiplex’ of Kasuga shrine-Kōfukuji temple, patronised by the powerful and aristocratic Fujiwara family (image 4 above).
By the early medieval period, sacred Mount Kasuga and its shrine-temple came to be regarded as a paradise. Beneath the mountains lay hell. The deer that still wander freely in the area today have a special significance as messengers of the Kasuga deity (image 5, image 6 both above).
Going further back by more than half a millennium to the roots of sacred imagery in Nara, The Asahi Shimbun Displays in Room 3 feature works from the oldest surviving Buddhist temple in the area, Hōryūji, temple of the exalted law. Originally a temple alongside the Ikaruga palace of Prince Shōtoku (Shōtoku Taishi, AD 574–622), the complex was rebuilt as Hōryūji following a fire of AD 670. Enshrined in the Golden Hall of the West Precinct is a famous gilt-bronze Shaka (Sakyamuni Buddha) triad made by sculptor Tori and dated equivalent to AD 623. The earlier of the two bodhisattva statues loaned to the Museum by Hōryūji is similar in style to the attendant bodhisattvas of the Tori triad and was likely cast in the same sculpture workshop (image 7 above).
With regular embassies travelling to Korea and China, new styles of continental Asian Buddhist art were regularly arriving in Japan around the Nara period (AD 710–794). The second of the two bodhisattva sculptures loaned by Hōryūji was made in a more advanced, naturalistic style – the silk scarves seem about to slip off the figure’s slender body (image 8 above). Since the 1690s when it was loaned for display in Edo (modern-day Tokyo), this image of Bodhisattva Kannon, the deity of compassion, has been said to have the power to change bad dreams into good ones. Just how international Buddhist art was in the early period is demonstrated by comparison with a brilliantly coloured Chinese painting of the same deity, Guanyin in Chinese, done in almost the same style, which was discovered in the Mogao cave shrines at distant Dunhuang, on the Silk Roads of central Asia (image 9 above).
Also displayed in Room 3 is a gigantic (4m x 3m) hanging scroll which shows the paradise of a Buddha, probably Miroku (Maitreya), the Buddha of the Future (image 10 above). This is a copy that was taken directly from frescoes dating from the late AD 600s or early 700s that adorn the walls of the Golden Hall at Hōryūji. The copy was commissioned by UK diplomat Sir Ernest Satow (1843–1929) and almost immediately given by him to surgeon William Anderson (1842–1900), whose painting collection came to the British Museum in 1881. The two men had visited Hōryūji together in 1879, meaning that the copy was then almost brand new. The original wall painting was tragically damaged by fire in 1949, so this early copy has additional historical value. The copy, made by painter Sakurai Kōun (1840–1895) on thin but sturdy paper, was rediscovered in the Museum’s collection in 2007 by Princess Akiko of Mikasa, while she was studying at Oxford. Recently it has been made into a hanging scroll suitable for display by conservation specialists in the Museum’s purpose-built Hirayama Studio, working together with colleagues from Japan.
Finally, let’s take a look at Prince Shōtoku, previously mentioned as the founder of what became Hōryuji. Serving as regent to his aunt Empress Suiko (AD 554–628), the prince was an early champion of Buddhism in Japan – to the degree that in the medieval period he himself became the focus of a religious cult. Also loaned by Hōryuji is the earliest sculpted portrait image of the prince, made by sculptor Enkai, decorated by painter Hata no Chitei, and dated equivalent to AD 1069 (image 11 above). Historically, the statue was paraded on a palanquin and entertained by musicians and dancers, in the shōryō-e ritual that consoled the faithful by behaving as if the prince was still alive. Displayed alongside is a painted portrait of the prince, also shown as a youth with long plaits, holding out a censer (dispenser of incense) and praying for the recovery from illness of his father Emperor Yōmei (AD 518–587) (image 12 below). (This hanging scroll has also recently been extensively conserved and remounted in the Hirayama Studio.)
We are so very grateful to the great religious institutions and the people of Nara for sharing with us their treasures and sacred works that so wonderfully complement and illuminate the Museum’s own collection. Special thanks also to our three expert academic advisers: Nedachi Kensuke, Samuel C. Morse and Unno Hiroyuki.
You can see these wonderful objects and discover more about the long history of Buddhism in Nara in our free displays in The Asahi Shimbun Displays (Room 3) and the Mitsubishi Corporation Japanese Galleries (Room 93) until 24 November 2019.
Supported by The Asahi Shimbun
Sponsored by Mitsubishi Corporation
Co-organised with Nara Prefecture