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Art Through Time: A Global View

Portraits Art: Kuya-Shonin (Saint Kuya)

» Kosho (Japan, active late 12th–early 13th century)

Kuya-Shonin (Saint Kuya)

Kuya-Shonin (Saint Kuya)
Artist / Origin: Kosho (Japan, active late 12th–early 13th century)
Region: East Asia
Date: Kamakura Period, early 13th century
Period: 1000 CE – 1400 CE
Material: Wood
Medium: Sculpture
Dimensions: H: 46 in. (117 cm.)
Location: Rokuharamitsuji Temple, Kyoto, Japan

Created by the thirteenth-century Japanese sculptor Kosho, St. Kuya displays a strikingly realistic style that is believed to have originated with the artist’s father, Unkei, and is characteristic of early Kamakura sculpture.

In its original state, the naturalism of the carved figure would have been enhanced by paint and inset crystal eyes. Although the specificity of this sculpture’s features suggests the likeness of an individual, the work is a posthumous portrait, created some two hundred years after the subject’s death.

Housed in the Rokuharamitsuji temple in Kyoto, St. Kuyacommemorates the temple’s legendary founder Kuya-Shonin (also known as Kuuya Shoonin), a tenth-century itinerant Buddhist priest. It is believed that Kuya established the temple in 951 and dedicated it to the goddess of healing in hopes of securing her assistance against an epidemic that was sweeping across the region. In addition to his role in the temple’s founding, Kuya was an important forerunner of the Jodo, or Pure Land, sect of Buddhism that emerged in Japan in the late twelfth century.

Following the philosophy of the seventh-century Chinese priest Shan-tao, Kuya and others taught that birth in the Pure Land, or Western Paradise, of the Amida Buddha could be achieved simply through faith and the recitation of the nembutsu, or name of Amida. Kosho’s St. Kuya shows the holy man in the act of recitation. In striking contrast to the realistic figural representation, the artist has added a more conceptual element to the work. The syllables of the nembutsu—namu Amida butsu(meaning “Praise to Amida Buddha”)—are given physical substance in form of six small buddhas that emerge from the statue’s mouth. Paradoxically, the contemporary viewer would have identified the figure not by his carefully rendered face (which could not have been based on Kuya’s actual features), but by the presence of these visualized syllables, along with his traveling attire and gong. In the context of the temple, the manifestation of the recitation serves other purposes as well. It both attests to Kuya’s own salvation and acts as a model for temple worshippers, allowing the saint to continue teaching even in death.

Expert Perspective:
Yoshiaki Shimizu, Professor of Art and Archeology, Princeton University

“Japanese portraits are contemplative, commemorative. These are used to fulfill religious function, rituals for celebrating the founding of a temple or the founding of the teaching. These sculptures are realistic, but we know that this particular sculpture was done in the thirteenth century representing a tenth-century figure. This person is known as Kuya, the Saint Kuya.

This is an extraordinary thing. This school of Buddhism capitalized on the chanting of the name of the deity. Amida butsu, Amida butsu—namu Amida butsu. Six syllables. And if you chant, it is believed in the thirteenth century that you are immediately picked as a candidate for salvation. And that is the most extraordinary—it is the sound taking the body. Embodied sound. It’s a conceptual art from the thirteenth century. We don’t have to wait for the twenty-first century to see this. This kind of thing was explored early on in Japanese art history. The Western generalization about Japanese art was it’s abstract, not interested in the reality, light and shade didn’t bother—No! They were interested in light and shade in these sculptures.”

Additional Resources

Mason, Penelope. History of Japanese Art. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2004.

Mori, Hisashi, and W. Chie Ishabashi. Japanese Portrait Sculpture. New York: Kodansha America, 1977.

Paine, Robert Treat, and Alexander Coburn Soper. The Art and Architecture of Japan. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.

Stanley-Baker, Joan. Japanese Art, rev. and expanded ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 2000.

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