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The most poignant work in Kyoto National Museum’s “Treasures of a Great Zen Temple, The Nanzenji: Commemorating the 700th Memorial Year of Emperor Kameyama” is a hand scroll titled “Prayer for the Prosperity of Zenrinzenji [Nanzenji]” from the hand of Emperor Kameyama himself.

The scroll’s power to move lies in the fact that this once “great” temple, for whose prosperity the emperor prayed, is a shadow of its former self. Though still impressive, the grounds of Nanzenji Temple have been radically downsized over the years since its foundation in the late 13th century. The sub-temples have dwindled from 62, at its peak, to only a dozen or so.

As if to reinforce that fact, the most recent work identifiable in this exhibition — an ink sketch of “The Dragon of the Nanzenji Ceremony Hall Ceiling” by Imao Keine — is dated simply “Meiji, 19th century.” That suggests the relation between Nanzenji and significant art-making came to an effective end more than 100 years ago.

As the first Zen temple to be established by a member of the Imperial family, Nanzenji’s beginnings were auspicious. The exhibition chronicles the inception of Nanzenji from its origin as the detached palace of Emperor Kameyama, through its consecration as a Zen temple in 1291 and its Edo Period heyday as a cultural, devotional and political force, to its lessening of influence in the Meiji Era as the country opened up to foreign ideas.

The important figures who populate Nanzenji’s history are well represented, as in the Muromachi Period hanging scrolls depicting the founding abbot, Mukan Fumon (with an inscription by Emperor Gokashiwabara), and a portrait of the second abbot, Kian Soen (inscribed by Zekkai Chushin). These images reflect Zen’s hierarchical relationship between master and disciple, with the calligraphy — inked on at a later date — being subordinate to the image, despite the illustrious identity of the authors.

There’s much more than just portraits on show, though: Celadon vases and incense burners, ink seals, ceramics, building plans, sculptures of priests, arhat (the enlightened who have achieved nirvana) and Kannon, priestly surplices and the attire of Empress Tofukumon’in are all gathered here.

There are also documents, such as “The Compiled Records of Nanzenji’s Landholdings” and “Mandate Pertaining to Nanzenji Construction Issued by Muromachi Bakufu Administrator Hosokawa Yoriyuki” (both 15th century), though unlike the magnificent calligraphed sutras also on show, the appeal of these is strictly for the slice of history they provide. In fact, screeds of calligraphy are on show and only the dedicated will try deciphering the texts.

Most visitors will move swiftly on to the dazzling sliding screen paintings of Hasegawa Tohaku, Maruyama Okyo and Kano Tan’yu, that usually adorn the temple complex.

In a set of Momoyama Period (1573-1615) sliding screen paintings from the Tenjuan abbot’s quarters, artist Tohaku takes motifs that are conventionally mere details in Chinese Sung Period ink painting and massively enlarges them into door-size compositions. Dexterous passages of brushwork delineate atmospheric voids that turn into craggy rocks, the slender legs of cranes, a fuzz of pine needles or bedraggled hermits.

Those hermits have companions in their serene weariness. One is the Kamakura Period wooden sculpture of Yishan Yining — the carved face effuses a world-weary glow of spirituality and the monk’s robe gathers at the knees in a pool of fabric, falling limply to the floor.

There’s nothing resigned, though, about a Muromachi Period “Bodhidharma” from the brush of Shokei. Spiky hairs protrude from the nose and ear and the earlobe stretches to chin level, weighed down by a monstrous earring. The staring eyes reflect a legend that the Bodhidharma pulled off his eyelids after nodding off during meditation — perhaps the figure is an admonition to stay alert.

It’s easy to sympathize. The temple treasures of Nanzenji are exhibited here in their entirety — 130 of them, of which four are National Treasures and 41 are Important Cultural Properties. The accumulated effect is frankly mind-numbing. To attend to everything here, let alone the finer details and nuances of individual works, requires an enormous amount of perseverance.

The visitor is likely to be left wondering whether the ancient custom among Buddhist temples of displaying a single treasure for a week or so once every few years might not have a point. At least in this way the experience might retain some of the intensity and attention that individual artworks require.

There has been a spate of oversize Buddhist art exhibitions recently: “Ultimate Todaiji” (2002), “Zen Art of Kamakura” (2003) and “Nichiren” (2003) among others. While I am sure viewers will be delighted with the improved access, I wonder how enriching the experience is.

Buddhist temples seem to be using exhibitions of their art treasures to attract new interest in off-precinct settings. While there is nothing wrong with this, it serves to underscore their changed roles in regard to art: Once flourishing centers of artistic production, temples are now increasingly merely repositories and lenders of the old and valuable.

As with the fate of Nanzenji itself, that’s cause for some poignant reflection.

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