The Story of the God of Kitano Tenjin

The Story of the God of Kitano Tenjin Shrine, Kamakura period (1185-1333), 13th century.

Emaki artists, Japanese painters working in the narrative handscroll or emaki format, were masters of dramatic suspense. This scroll depicts the origin of the Kitano Shrine of the Tenjin cult, one of the most important in Shinto, the indigenous religion of Japan. As the scroll is unrolled (from right to left), a cloud lifts to reveal floodwaters raging against a windswept veranda, where two disheveled courtiers lie. With another arm’s-length opening of the scroll, the storm-demon god hurls hail, lightning, and bloody vengeance against the hapless minister Fujiwara Tokihira (871–909), who futilely brandishes a sword against the angry spirit of Sugawara-no-Michizane (845–903), a rival who died in exile at Tokihira’s contrivance. Jagged lines of cut-gold lightning unite the scene’s beginning with its denouement, in which a priest incants Esoteric Buddhist formulas against the disaster.

This is one of thirty-seven illustrations in the Museum’s version of the Kitano Tenjin Engi, painted in the second half of the thirteenth century for one of the many Shinto shrines dedicated to appease Michizane’s spirit, believed to have caused the deaths of his enemies and extraordinary natural disasters. This version, second in age only to the early thirteenth-century set in the main shrine at Kitano in Kyoto, is unique for its second section describing the monk Nichizō’s Dantesque journey to hell. Nichizō encounters the repentant spirit of Emperor Daigo (885–930), who had wrongly ordered the exile of his loyal minister Michizane. The torments of hell, brilliantly envisaged, reflect contemporaneous paintings of hell inspired by Pure Land teachings.

Unidentified artist,  Japan, Handscroll; ink and color on paper


The Story of the God of Kitano Tenjin Shrine.  Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Web. 6 May 2013.

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