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Artist Unknown
Kasuga Mandala
13th-14th century
Color and gold on silk

This painting depicts the Kasuga Shrine, located at the foot of the sacred Mount Mikasa in the hills surrounding the city of Nara. Borrowed from Buddhist painting, the term mandala describes works such as this. In the same way that Buddhist mandalas diagram the relationships among various deities, shrine mandalas chart the sacred geography of the shrine precincts and the surrounding areas.

Shrines are associated with Shinto, Japan's indigenous, pre-Buddhist faith, often referred to as the "Way of the Gods." Shinto gods, or kami, included nature spirits of various types and the spirits of the deceased. Shinto beliefs and practices varied widely from one location to another and lacked any overarching organization until the arrival of Buddhism in Japan. During the Heian period (794-1185), Buddhism and Shinto grew increasingly connected. Shinto kami were often thought to be manifestations of Buddhist deities. Many Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples were paired into shrine-temple complexes as a result of the reconciliation of these two belief systems. The Kasuga Shrine, for example, is within easy walking distance of Kôfuku-ji, the Buddhist temple associated with it.

Diplomatic relations between Japan and China and the cultural exchange that brought such teachings as Esoteric Buddhism to Japan deteriorated in the late ninth century, primarily because of dynastic change on the continent. While Chinese painters began exploring the possibilities of ink monochrome landscapes (see the next two works), Japanese artists, free from direct continental influence, began developing their own indigenous aesthetic referred to as the yamato-e style. By the time this work was painted, yamato-e sensibilities had been fully codified. The lush coloring and decorative qualities seen in this painting were two important elements of this style.

Ackland Art Museum, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Ackland Fund; 85.6.1

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Copyright (c) 2000, Mayumi Ishida, All Rights Reserved Last Updated: April 11, 2000