Works from the Tendai Buddhist Gakuenji temple in Shimane Prefecture form the feature exhibition of Kyoto National Museum’s New Year’s show. Tradition tells that the priest Chishun established Gakuenji around the time of the Empress Suiko (554-628) though centuries passed before it was first alluded to in literary records. Arguably a famous sacred temple among Kyoto’s cultural elite and itinerant mountain priests in earlier days, the first official nominal reference to its existence appeared in the 1213 “Mandate to Gakuenji from the Administrative Office of Mudo-ji on Mt. Hiei.”

With literary authentication centuries later, the sculptural record fills in the vacuum, providing opportunity to review some of the early history of Japan’s sculptural development, which was based on imported models.

As an exhibition this show is small scale, and the works themselves never reach beyond hip height. The significance, however, is the emphasis on the syncretic relation between the import of Buddhism and the native Shinto in what is generally considered to be a distinctive area of Shinto religion surrounding the Izumo Grand Shrine.

“Standing Buddha” (seventh century, Asuka Period) is intimate in scale, not a foot tall, showing the influences of contemporary Chinese Buddhist sculpture or perhaps that of the Three Kingdoms Period (57 B.C.-A.D. 668) of Korean sculpture. These were common prototypes emulated in Japan at the time, and the way the robes gather around the shoulders of the figure about halfway down the upper arm, and the lack of an obi belt, indicate foreign influences.

Later Heian Period (794-1185) comparisons can be more indicative of local and foreign rapprochements. “Standing Acala Vidyaraja (Fudo Myo-o)” (11th century,) has an overall smooth appearance and a general lack of detail in the modeling of the surface features such as the hair with its lotus flower or the draping that encases the carved wooden body. The iconographical features of the “Wisdom King” are all there, however, including the upright sword in the right hand, the lasso (kensaku) in the left, and the two fangs that protrude from the mouth — one up, one down.

A 13th-century example of the same deity is invested with much greater realism in the treatment of the hair, fierce facial features and flowing garments. Now aged and black, originally the body was painted blue and the garment covered in gold foil applied using a technique called kirikane. The rippling appearance of the fabric beneath the obi was inspired by Song Dynasty (960-1279) Chinese sculpture.

Two final pieces emphasize syncretism. The bronze “Standing Uho Doji” (13th century), a Buddhist manifestation of the Shinto sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami, measures less than 2 cm tall. It was found inside a ritual Buddhist bell, the provenance of which dates to the 18th or 19th century.

“An Ancient Temple of the San’in Region: The Treasures of Gakuen-ji Temple in Shimane” at Kyoto National Museum runs till Feb. 15; 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. ¥560. Closed Mon. www.kyohaku.go.jp/eng/index.html

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