Nara: sacred images from early Japan

Nara: sacred images from early Japan


Nara is an amazing magical place. It was the capital of Japan in the 8th century. So, we have an unbroken tradition of some 1,400 years. And Nara is dotted with amazing ancient temples and shrines, full of treasures. So Nara was the capital from 710 to 784 AD, so less than a century. But in many ways it is the cradle of much of traditional Japanese civilisation, particularly its religious culture. The great institutions, the temples and shrines founded in the eighth century mark the early consolidation of the Buddhist religion in Japan. Buddhism arrived in Japan from China and Korea in the 6th century. The king of Korea sent an image of a Buddha, probably a gilt bronze small statue to the emperor of Japan. And this is, symbolically, the beginnings of the imperial house in Japan adopting the Buddhist religion to bolster their own political position and
to unify the nation. But there were pre-existing beliefs, of course, in Japan before Buddhism arrived belief in the spirits of nature and of ancestors which
are called the kami in Japanese. We now call it the Shinto religion and one of
the amazing things about Japan is although there was some trouble at the
beginning, rivalry between those who supported the traditional Japanese
beliefs and the newly-arrived Buddhism, although it was a bit of rivalry at the
beginning fairly quickly they found a peaceable way of coexisting. So although some of the great temples and shrines have been damaged by fires during civil wars at the end of the 12th century and again at the end of the 16th
century, each time Nara has risen again out of the ashes and it’s still very
much a thriving, living centre, particularly of the Buddhist religion. Nara prefecture is very generously lending 15 religious treasures from the
great temples and shrines of Nara and the National Museum there to the British
Museum for a temporary special display. They date from the AD 600s through
the 1300s. We are introducing into the display some amazing Nara paintings from the collection of the British Museum. This is probably the most important Japanese Buddhist painting in the collection of the British Museum. The central deity is known in Japanese as Fukuensaku Kannon and that means the Bodhisattva of compassion with the never empty noose. This is an esoteric form of
the deity with four arms and three heads and if you look carefully you can see in
one of the hands is this noose a kind of lasso which the dirty uses to snare
the attention of the faithful. Bodhisattva of compassion is seated on a
lotus throne on top of a rocky outcrop and is guarded by these two guardian
figures. We are sure that this painting is closely associated with Nara probably
with Todai-Ji temple, the Great Eastern temple because one of the two guardian
figures in this rare iconography this is a copy of a surviving clay sculpture
from the eighth century which is a national treasure at Todai-J temple. The
painting dates from around the Year 1200 which is an important date in the
history of Nara. In 1180 much of the city was destroyed by the Taira troops in the
civil war and so the period from 1180 to 1200 is a period of great revival great
rebuilding and so was a sense in which the painter of this hanging scroll was
looking to the ancient sculptures of the 8th century in Nara as a source of inspiration. This painting is of a type known as a
kasuga shrine mandala and it takes us into one of the great religious sites on
the northeast corner of the city of Nara. The painting dates from the 1400s and in
that period the weave of Japanese paintings is often quite open
unfortunately this means that in the paintings have a tendency to flake and
some of the pigment here has fallen off and it’s perhaps obscured some of the
details but in essence we still have all of the original composition and in fact
the landscape at the top of the painting is mount Mikasa this rounded mountain in the center and then the kasuga mountains behind. Spreading out on the
foothills of mount Mikasa are the shrine buildings of the kasuga shrine and in
particular we should focus on four little shrine buildings side by
side in the central compound and you’ll notice also in the sky there are these
five Buddhas hovering in roundels. In Japan in this period there’s a very
interesting combination of Buddhism and native Shinto, where the Shinto deities
are regarded as emanations or avatars or protectors of the Buddhist deities. And
the four Buddhist deities hovering here in the sky are what are called the Honji Suijaku the original Buddhas associated with these four shinto shrines, the fifth one is associated with
a Wakamiya shrine off to the right. And because of the close association between Buddhism and Shinto in this period, This painting has the Kasuga shrine at the
top and the Buddhist deities of Kōfukuji temple at the bottom so the painting
itself is a kind of manifestation of the closeness of Buddhism and Shinto in this period. None of the treasures that are being
loaned from Nara have ever been seen in the UK before and the Nara paintings
that we have in the British Museum can only occasionally be shown because
they’re obviously very ancient but also very light-sensitive and we have to be
careful to limit the amount of exposure to the light. It’s just extremely gratifing to be able to unite them with some of
the wonderful sculptures and religious objects that Nara Prefecture are lending
on this occasion. It really is a unique opportunity to see the paintings
together with the sculptures and ritual objects from their original context and
comparing the two we learn a great deal of new information

25 thoughts on “Nara: sacred images from early Japan

  1. Extremely good, I totally liked it!, See this New Album 'Monish Jasbird – Death Blow', channel link www.youtube.com/channel/UCv_x5rlxirO-WKjLIyk6okQ?sub_confirmation=1 , you might like 🙂

  2. Wow those paintings are stunning ! So much detail and very precise lines and borders compared to roman or anglo saxon paintings of that time period

  3. Imagine how much more
    Intelligent all of humanity would be by now
    If billions of people did not have the development of their intelligence
    Retarded by 5,000 years of belief in weird cartoon gods
    Invented by primitive cults to help ego maniac kings
    Tax, enslave + slaughter 100's of millions of
    Innocent men, women, children + babies

    Belief in lies
    Only makes slaves

    Logic breaks their chains

  4. Nara is beautiful. The temples are so ancient the place should feel heavy, but it doesn’t. It is a place of joyful spirits, and deer. Lots of deer roaming around parks that you can feed. I remember a woman chasing a deer that was prancing away from her while slowly noshing on a piece of paper, which turned out to be her family’s itinerary for the rest of their vacation.

  5. Lol. Sorry but I wouldn't expect from British Museum making such funny mistakes lol .

    I am sad though, because a friend earlier corrected that unfortunate mistake, I doubt many took notice!

    China does not relate to Shingon Buddhism. China and Japan do no relate at all.

    It was India who influenced Japan. China, well they had to pass through somewhere to reach Japan! Lol
    Anyway there is a say about the Japanese people. They are born, live as Shinto and they die as Shingon Buddhists.

    Nobody knows that Van Gong once said to his brother Teo, he owes his career to Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock printings.
    Impressionism movement is the outcome of Japanese culture influence. Japonisme is a phenomenon, describing the first "weaboos" – its a term used to discriminate people who love Japan with a passion (like me).

    Below a very insightful video for anyone who might be interested of learning how lively is Japanese culture, till today! It's wonderful! Enjoy!

    https://youtu.be/iVFJznSgLd8

  6. At 0:21 it shows a large hill behind the temple.
    Oddly reminiscent of a pyramid.
    Considering this site is a spiritual and cultural "center", I would guess it is much older and bigger than we know.

  7. Interesting and informative video. Very worthwhile, especially those interested in Buddhism and those interested in Asian art.

  8. I would hate to be the logistics guy for safely moving those statues and artworks…I'm guessing he has to carry a seppuku-sword, just in case of problems.

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