Classic Court Culture: Media of Reception and Identity

Heian period (794–1185)

Selections from the Collection

In what is considered to have been a decisive move to escape the powerful monastic communities of the capital Nara–period Heijōkyō, the imperial court established a new capital north of Nara called Heiankyō. The location of the city corresponds roughly to modern day Kyoto, and it remained the official capital of Japan from 794 until 1868. Like Heijōkyō, Heiankyō was built following the model of the Chinese capital Chang'an, but out of imperial uneasiness about potential power struggles with the Buddhist leadership, only two temples were built within the city precincts. However, Emperor Kanmu, who ruled from 781 to 806, did sanction the practice of two newer forms of Buddhism imported from China. He allowed the two schools, Shingon and Tendai, to operate in the hills surrounding the capital.

Shingon initially became the more popular of the two schools, and its leader, Kūkai (774–835), received imperial permission in 823 to occupy and renovate one of the two temples built within the capital. Shingon brought with it the powerful painted and sculptural forms of mandalas, or representations of the Buddhist universal order, as well as the earliest surviving examples in Japan of painted portraiture of religious leaders. Painted representations of Shingon deities appear to have influenced the visual conceptualization of sculpted Shinto deities. Heian period Buddhist and Shinto sculpture was most frequently executed in wood, a preference that extended to temple architecture as well. Two joinery techniques, single-block and multiple-block, were used in producing wooden statues.

By the beginning of the eleventh century, Tendai–based forms of worship had gained popularity with the court nobility, and inspired new themes in art that illustrated aspects of belief in the Buddha Amida. Increased belief in the salvific power of Amida was linked to the idea that a period known as mappō was imminent. Mappō, which officially began in 1052, was explained in Buddhist scriptures as a stage at which the world was to enter into irreversible moral decline and lawlessness. Another response to the dawn of mappō was the production of elaborately decorated copies of the Lotus Sutra, a practice which was considered efficacious in protecting devotees from this frightening new reality.

On a level of equal importance with developments in the sphere of Buddhism were events of a more secular nature. From the year 858, a powerful family called the Fujiwara began to control governmental affairs by appointing members of their clan as regents to successive emperors. The Fujiwara ensured their appointments to the top positions in government by an extended series of arranged marriages of their daughters to heirs to the imperial seat. The capital enjoyed relative peace under the Fujiwara, which afforded courtiers with ample time for cultural pursuits. Some thirty-five years after the Fujiwara took control of the government, imperially sponsored emissaries to China officially ceased, and a period of cultural introspection began. A rich array of literary, visual, and musical practices flourished during this time as Japan digested the intense cultural exchange it had experienced with the continent, and refined its own sense of aesthetics. The Tale of Genji was written, and the imperially sponsored Kokin wakashū (Collection of Poems Old and New) was compiled. Both works were in kana, a phonetic script devised for writing in Japanese, as opposed to Chinese. A new form of narrative painting, emakimono, or illustrated handscrolls, grew out of Chinese models, but had a distinctively Japanese range of styles. Such handscrolls combined the beauty of kana calligraphy with illustrations emphasizing either rich layered pigments or fluid ink lines accented with a more restrained use of color.

The Heian imperial palace complex boasted a large hall for ceremonies, along with a smaller residential compound. Walls, sliding doors, and free-standing screens within both structures were painted with carefully selected scenes. Documentation suggests that the architecture of the former was distinctly Chinese in style, with paintings depicting Chinese themes, while the latter was Japanese in style, and contained paintings primarily Japanese in theme. That a distinction was made between kara-e, Chinese paintings, and yamato-e, Japanese paintings, is clear from Heian texts, but modern understanding of the nature of the distinction is inhibited by the paucity of extant paintings. The interior of the palace and other imperially sponsored painting programs were carried out by the imperial painting bureau. The lavish decorative and architectural traditions of the Heian court are commonly thought to have been largely absent from the life of the provinces, with the exception of Hiraizumi, a Fujiwara stronghold in northern Japan.

Although the Fujiwara continued to be a powerful force in government until the middle of the twelfth century, from the late eleventh century power was restored to the imperial family through a new system by which retired emperors ruled in place of current emperors. The imperial family and the Heian nobility continued to dedicate much of their efforts to cultural and spiritual enrichment. However, succession disputes within the imperial family and civil unrest originating in the provinces gradually led to the demise of the peace the capital had enjoyed. Between 1180 and 1185, a war was waged between rival factions in the capital, and military leaders overtook the central government.

Further Readings

McCullough, H. C., transl., Kokin Wakashu: The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry. (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1984)

Murase, Miyeko, Emaki: Narrative Scrolls from Japan. (New York: Asia Society, 1983)

Shimizu, Yoshiaki, and Rosenfield, John M., Masters of Japanese Calligraphy: 8th-19th Century. (New York: Asia Society Galleries, 1984)

Yienpruksawan, Mimi, Hiraizumi: Buddhist Art and Regional Politics in Twelfth-century Japan. (Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center : Distributed by Harvard University Press, 1998)

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Anonymous, Japanese
Sutra from Jingōji Temple
Japan, Heian period, ca. 1150
Gold and silver on indigo paper
26.0 x 885.0 cm.
Museum purchase, Caroline G. Mather Fund