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Artist Unknown
Byaku-e Kannon Triptych
Late 14th century
Ink on silk

This triptych depicts a Byaku-e or "White-Robed" Kannon flanked by a plum and bamboo. This particular manifestation of Kannon Bodhisattva represents one of the most enduring iconographic traditions in the Zen painting tradition. The early prototypes of Byaku-e Kannon imagery date to late eighth-century China. By the time Zen Buddhism was introduced into Japan in the early thirteenth century, Byaku-e Kannon representations had a substantial legacy that attracted professional painters, who often executed commissions for monasteries and their patrons, and amateur painter-monks, who were equally fond of this theme. It is not possible to link this work with certainty to one or the other tradition; it does, however, lack the polished quality of professional works that would have tended to highlight iconographic details.

Although meditation was part of many Esoteric Buddhist rituals, it was not until Zen (the term means meditation) was introduced to Japan that it became the specific practice of an entire sect. White-Robed Kannon imagery was particularly popular with Zen practitioners. The deity is usually depicted on a rocky outcrop overlooking a waterfall. The Kannon's distinctly contemplative attitude and the natural setting evoke important sentiments often associated with Zen practice.

Most surviving Byaku-e Kannon images consist of only a single hanging scroll. Complete triptychs, in which the White-Robed Kannon are depicted with auspicious trees or animals, are extremely rare; this may be the only surviving example outside of Japan.

Ackland Art Museum, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Ackland Fund; 89.14.1,.2,.3

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