Some thoughts about the history of Japanese painting

The Buddhist pictures should enhance the believers’ veneration by generating feelings of joy and elevation

Some thoughts about the history of Japanese painting

The history of Japanese painting begins with the introduction of Buddhism in the 6th century A.D. Temples and monasteries were decorated by Chinese and Korean painters depicting mostly Buddha and Bodhisattvas.


Buddha, the Indian founder of this religion, is said to have lived around 500 B.C. Between the second and the fifth century A.D. Buddhism spread across the whole of central Asia and as far as China. During his lifetime, Buddha founded a monks’ order and had a considerable number of laymen who followed his teachings. These teachings are seemingly simple, but it requires a great effort and deep devotion to pursue them; nothing is important if it is not realized. One of the basic rules says that the belief in the existence of any kind of individual things is null and obstructive since it is the basis for all suffering and pain in the world. Any kind of purely intellectual speculation is included in this.

Inner vision is in the center of attention. In Buddhism the veneration of a transcendental ideal is a legitimate way to gain spiritual knowledge.

The teaching of the three bodies of Buddha is significant for the artistic composition. At the time of his earthly life, Buddha possessed a human body with all its imperfections (Nirmanakaya). The Buddha’s true nature in his perfect enlightenment, however, is the unspeakable absolute, which is identical with the cosmos itself (Dharmakaya – “the body of teaching”). Between the two there is a symbolical, golden body with numerous attributes. This body is transcendent and is depicted by golden aureoles and beams radiating from their centers (Sambhogakaya – “the body of joy”).

The preaching Buddha is often seen with his followers, who sometimes have their legs crossed. They were called Bodhisattvas and the believers said that they were more approachable by human prayers than Buddha who was on his throne and far away from them.

A Bodhisattva is an enlightened being whose goal is not only to realize enlightenment and attain Nirvana, but to help all beings liberate themselves from the endless circle of reincarnations.

The Bodhisattva Maitreya is seen as the Buddha of the future, as the teacher of a coming world period. His name is derived from the Sanskrit word maitri which means universal Love, Goodness, Joy and Friendship.

There is a differentiation between the earthly and the unearthly Bodhisattvas. The former ones are people who live the life of this world, who work for the wellbeing of all the sentient beings (humans and animals) because they are full of goodness and compassion. The latter ones are transcendental beings who also support everybody and help them on their path to liberation.

The task of art

Japan developed into a center for religious paintings. In the 9th century A.D. a painters’ studio was set up by the emperor. The 11th century can be seen as the golden age of Japanese painting in many ways. Besides religious art a flourishing secular art also began to develop, for example the first portraits of famous personalities originated in the 12th century.

The different forms of art were seen as a useful means to point to a meaning which is beyond the form. Therefore it was of importance that the whole natural world was seen as animated by Kami, by spirits or gods.

Kami are in all things, in mountains, trees, stones, waterfalls etc. The typical Japanese love for nature is an immediate consequence of this imagination of a spiritually animated landscape. This view is connected with the other Japanese religious tradition, Shintoism.

The Buddhist pictures should enhance the believers’ veneration by generating feelings of joy and elevation since that which you can love as a physical picture can become your inner measure. Thereby we must also consider that the people of former times could neither read nor write. So, besides the recitations in the temples there were only the visual objects as a bridge for understanding. The Lotus throne of the Buddha, in whose depictions flowers are raining out of the mysterious depth of space, attracted particular attention.

The paintings should concentrate the believers’ spirit onto the divine path. Certain rituals correspond to each figure. The colors, and the number of the arms and heads point to spiritual and soul qualities.

Beside the imagery the believer is approached through ritual mantras. The aim of this is also the summoning of divine forces.

A further kind of Buddhist iconography is the picture narration. There, it is about moral kitting of the Buddhist teaching. One of these narrations tells us about the self-sacrifice of the future Buddha, where he jumps from a rock to serve as food for a hungry tigress and her cubs.

The Chinese-Japanese way of drawing on the one hand strives for a visible depiction, i.e. a clear and unified contour which limits the forms. At the same time the “long-drawn” lines of the Japanese artists are based on a spiritual concentration and an immediate mastery of the motion sequence. The icons of a pure style aim for regularity and line repetition.

The colors are used for their emotional values. The color composition in a fully developed painting reaches far beyond any linguistic symbolism. It connects all the elements of style and has the task to show the beholder the beauty of the divine.



Frühbuddhistische Malerei aus Japan (Early Buddhist painting from Japan), Unesco pocket books of art, Munich 1963

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Date: April 22, 2019
Author: Cornelia Vierkant (Germany)
Photo: Efes Kitap via Pixabay CCO

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