Sculptures of the Kamakura period can be strikingly realistic; the works have naturalistic body proportions and are carved with a sense of breath-filled volume. Buddhas (enlightened beings) and bodhisattvas (beings destined for Buddhahood who postpone it to assist others in reaching enlightenment) appear approachable, while fierce guardian deities possess a great sense of movement and dramatic facial expressions. The folds of draperies and details of clothing are rendered with convincing naturalism, and facial features often evoke real, human individuals.
Several factors contributed to the increased realism in sculpture of the period: joined-woodblock construction (employing multiple hollow blocks of wood for a single statue) allowed sculptors to portray more dramatic movement than in works carved from a single tree trunk. The use of inset crystal for the eyes was another important innovation that created a vivid sense of realism. Sculptors in the Nara area, working to restore icons lost to fire, revived and updated naturalistic eighth-century styles. Contact with China intensified during the early Kamakura period, and Japanese sculptors absorbed elements from Song-dynasty (960–1279) Chinese art, which also displayed greater naturalism during this time.
The Kamakura period saw the emergence of master sculptors with clear artistic identities. We know the names of these artists from signatures on works, a practice which increased significantly in this period. The Standing Shaka Buddha, Fudō Myōō, and Standing Jizō Bosatsu in this section were all made by the master sculptor Kaikei (active ca. 1183–1223), one of the most renowned artists of the period, whose style was widely imitated by later sculptors. Competition for patronage was fierce, and artists completed commissions for a wide variety of patrons and religious institutions. But as inscriptions and documents reveal, sculptors were also themselves devotees of Buddhism and of the deities they so beautifully rendered in material form.
Sculptors and Their Workshops
This exhibition includes a number of signed works by master sculptors and other works that can be attributed to specific artists or their workshops. Most of these artists belonged to the innovative Kei school, a major driver of stylistic change and increased naturalism in the Kamakura period.
Sculptors emphasized their artistic lineage through their assumed names. Disciples—often blood relatives—incorporated characters from previous master sculptors’ names as part of their own. The character “kei 慶” in Kei school comes from the sculptor Kōkei 康慶 (active 1152–1196), who established the school in the Nara area. The same “kei” was also used by his successor, Kaikei 快慶 (active ca. 1183–1223), and the sculptor Jōkei 定慶 (1184–1256).
The Zen school, whose sculptors use the character “zen 善” in their names (different from Zen 禅 Buddhism), emerged in the Nara area during the early decades of the thirteenth century. Zen-school sculptors are known for their great technical skill and for the approachable sweetness characterizing many of their works.
Sculptors frequently collaborated on works, even on small statues, with a master sculptor leading the project. The inscriptions inside two Jizō figures by Kaikei and Zen’en include the names of their associates and sons. Illustrious sculptors were granted honorific ecclesiastical titles and ranks, which they incorporated in their signatures. Some sculptors also adopted devotional names; Kaikei’s signature on a Jizō reads “An’amidabutsu,” which refers to his faith in the Buddha Amida.
Zen’en (1197–1258).Jizō Bosatsu. Kamakura period, ca. 1225–26.Japanese cypress (hinoki) with cut gold leaf and traces of pigment, inlaid crystal eyes, and bronze staff with attachments. Asia Society, New York: Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection, 1979.202a–e. Photography by Synthescape
The interior of this small, elegant image of Jizō Bosatsu bears the signatures of Zen’en and several other sculptors, along with the names of prominent monks of the Kōfukuji temple in Nara, presumed to be the patrons. The inscription also establishes that this Jizō, a Buddhist icon on the exterior, is associated with worship of the native Japanese gods at Kasuga shrine in Nara, which formed a shrine-temple complex with Kōfukuji. Two other statues closely related to this Jizō are still extant in Japan, and Zen’en likely created them all as part of a set of five Buddhist images corresponding to the five native deities of Kasuga.
Kaikei (active ca. 1183–1223). Fudō Myōō. Kamakura period, early 13th century. Lacquered, polychromed, and gilded Japanese cypress (hinoki) with cut gold leaf (kirikane) and inlaid crystal eyes. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Mary Griggs Burke Collection, Gift of the Mary and Jackson Burke Foundation, 2015 (2015.300.252). Image copyright the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource.
Fudō Myōō, whose name means “the immovable Wisdom King,” is an important deity in esoteric Buddhism. Iconographic tradition dictates the child-like proportions and fierce expression of Fudō, who has the power to destroy obstacles to enlightenment. In the Kamakura period, however, images of this deity were imbued with a new sense of naturalism, as seen in the modeling of the chest and articulation of the waist in this work. Although unsigned, this Fudō is attributed to the sculptor Kaikei based on style; a nearly identical sculpture signed by him is in the Sanbō-in temple in Kyoto.
Two important technical innovations furthered the realistic approach to sculpture in the Kamakura period.
Joined woodblock construction (yosegi zukuri): While sculptors in ancient Japan used a single tree trunk for the main body of icons, in the mid-eleventh century they began using multiple blocks of wood carved and hollowed out separately and then assembled to create a single, large sculpture. By the Kamakura period, this technique, called “joined woodblock construction,” was widely used even for small works. This allowed for greater flexibility in depicting naturalistic and dramatic movement of the body, since the icon’s form was not constrained by the log’s initial size. Once assembled, the wooden sculpture was coated with lacquer and then painted or gilded.
Gushōjin. Kamakura period, 13th century. Wood with traces of pigment. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: The Harry G. C. Packard Collection of Asian Art, Gift of Harry G. C. Packard, and Purchase, Fletcher, Rogers, Harris Brisbane Dick, and Louis V. Bell Funds, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, and The Annenberg Fund Inc. Gift, 1975 (1975.268.700a–c). Image copyright the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource.
Although small, this sculpture was created with the true joined woodblock construction technique (yosegi zukuri) using separate pieces for the left and right sides of the body, the arms, sleeves, hands, and the protruding fabric of the robe in the front. The naturalistic carving and powerful stance, best viewed from all angles, demonstrates the dynamism of Kamakura-period sculpture. The figure is thought to represent Gushōjin, a deity that records the good and bad deeds of every person throughout his or her lifetime for judgement after death by the King of Hell. This Gushōjin is dressed as a Chinese official, reflecting how such beliefs entered Japan from China in the late Heian period.
Inset rock-crystal eyes (gyokugan): The use of crystal inserts for the eyes of wooden sculptures was a mid-twelfth-century innovation, attributed to Kei-school sculptors of Nara. Socket-like openings for the eyes were created in the hollowed-out head of the statue. Lens-shaped pieces of crystal were painted on their concave sides with pupils and irises, sometimes outlined in gold or red, and backed with white paper. The crystal eyes would then be inserted into the sockets from the inside of the head, secured with a wooden strip held in place by pegs. The crystal would reflect the firelight of temple interiors, making the sculpture’s eyes glitter and greatly enhancing the work’s life-like presence.
Kōshun (active 1315–1328). The Shinto Deity Hachiman in the Guise of a Buddhist Monk. Kamakura period, dated 1328. Polychromed Japanese cypress (hinoki) with inlaid crystal eyes. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Maria Antoinette Evans Fund and Contributions, 36.413. Photograph © 2016 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Although easily mistaken for a portrait of an actual monk, this sculpture represents Hachiman, the clan god of the Minamoto warrior family and the tutelary, or protective, Shintō deity associated with many Buddhist temples. An inscription on the interior of the head tells us that the sculptor was named Kōshun, held the rank of “eye of the law” (hōgen) and was a master sculptor of the Kōfukuji temple in Nara. Later in the fourteenth century, Kōshun also signed his works as a “descendant of the sculptor Unkei,” demonstrating the importance of tracing sculptural lineages in artistic identity in the Kamakura period.
Contact with China
The late twelfth century brought increasing diplomatic, commercial, and religious exchange with China, which contributed to stylistic and iconographic changes in Kamakura-period art. Chinese craftsmen were employed in rebuilding the great temples of Nara after their fiery destruction in the 1180s, and Japanese monks traveled back and forth, bringing Chinese texts, prints, and paintings to Japan. Artists like Kaikei observed and incorporated new elements from imported works into their sculpture.
Continental influence can be seen in the Chinese-style draperies, with fluttering hemlines and fluted sleeves, and towering, elegant topknots of some Japanese sculpture from this period.
The small Gushōjin in Chinese-style official robes in this section represents Chinese beliefs in the Kings of Hell, incorporated into Japanese Buddhism just prior to the Kamakura period. Devotees believed that individuals destined for rebirth in hell first encountered a Chinese-style court complete with kings who judged the dead and assigned their punishments. Numerous paintings of the Kings of Hell were imported from China during this period; Japanese artists copied the paintings and also reimagined the deities of the underworld as sculptural ensembles.
Circle of Higo Busshi Jōkei (born 1184–died after 1256). Bishamonten. Kamakura period, first half of 13th century. Polychromed and gilded Japanese cypress (hinoki) with cut gold leaf (kirikane) with inlaid crystal eyes and gilt-metal ornaments. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Mary Griggs Burke Collection, Gift of the Mary and Jackson Burke Foundation, L2015.33.269a-f. Bridgeman Images.
Bishamonten is the guardian king of the North, who appears as a fierce, armor-clad warrior trampling a demon, symbolic of his subjugation of evil. Kamakura-period records indicate that Bishamonten was worshipped for defense of the nation and success in battle by such people as Minamoto Yoritomo (1147–1199), the first Kamakura shogun. The Kei-school sculptor, Higo Busshi Jōkei, to whose circle this work is attributed, executed commissions for warrior patrons in eastern Japan as well as aristocratic patrons in the imperial capital of Kyoto. Jōkei and his circle often represented Bishamonten with highly realistic facial features, evoking the presence of a real individual rather than a distant deity.