An exhibition of temple treasures to rival any in the country

by Gary Tegler

NARA — Kofukuji holds a special place in Japanese history, rivaled by few other temples. Throughout its nearly 1,300 years, it has enjoyed the largess of imperial and noble patrons, been home to armies of warrior monks and been rebuilt time and again from the ashes of devastating fires.

A World Heritage site, its earliest structures were raised in 669 in the Yamashina area of Kyoto. The temples and halls were moved to their present location in Nara in 710.

Kofukuji, head temple of the Hosso school of Buddhism, was the family temple of the Fujiwaras, the kuge (court noble) clan that, through its close connections to the Imperial family, dominated the court for centuries. This high-level patronage meant that the temple accumulated a priceless collection of art, including hundreds of statues and other artifacts.

The temple is currently holding the first in a series of commemorative exhibitions to celebrate the turn of the millennium and to acquaint the public with an archaeological dig now under way. A funerary hall of the Fujiwaras, Chukondo, was in such disrepair it was dismantled four years ago. Archaeologists now hope to restore it.

As part of “Kofukuji: Special Exhibition of National Treasures 2001,” the temple has decided to open the two oldest existing structures to the public. You can now see a graceful sanju-no-to (three-tiered pagoda) dating from the 13th century and one of two octagonal halls called Hokuen-do.

The principle image in Hokuen-do, the bodhisattva Maitreya (Miroku), was carved between 1208 and 1212 by the renowned sculptor Unkei and is considered one of the finest works of the period.

As is the case with most of Japan’s temples, not a single structure currently standing at Kofukuji is original. Sanju-no-to was built after a fire razed the temple and is a perfect blend of the Heian and Kamakura period architectural styles.

Only one of the four figurines that would have faced out to the four directions remains, but on the sides of the now empty alcoves are hundreds of tiny paintings of Buddhist figures.

On display in the temple’s treasure hall, called Kokuhokan, are eight of the most intriguing statues to be found anywhere in the country. These are guardians of Buddhism and their method of manufacture, called datsukatsu kanshitsu, was used exclusively in the Tenpyo Period (710-794).

They are also some of the most expensive and elaborately made works in Japanese art. They began as frames of crossed sticks bound together and wrapped with juncus reed. A thick layer of clay was then applied around the frame, wich which some rudimentary features were molded. The whole body was then wrapped in three to 15 layers of linen soaked in lacquer. On top of this was brushed on numerous layers of lacquer mixed with powdered wood. It was at this time that the extraordinarily delicate features of the statues were shaped.

Finally, a rectangular window was cut from the back of the figure and the clay carved out. Wooden struts were placed inside for rigidity, and the window was carefully replaced.

Lacquer, then as now, was rare and expensive to produce. It is estimated that the amount of lacquer used in the making of these statues equaled the cost of constructing a single hall at Kofukuji.

Ironically, the elaborate process that went into the manufacture of the statues guaranteed their survival. Because they are hollow, they are light and could be carried from a burning temple by a single monk.

Standing roughly 160 cm tall, they would also have been the height of an average person of the period. It is recorded that these statues were the work of a single artist, Shogun Manpuku.

The six-armed, three-faced Ashura figure, produced sometime around 734, is a work of supreme inspiration and its style of costume is believed to be Persian in origin.

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