A Japanese team of researchers has found a painting that appears to describe the cosmology of Manichaeism, a religion that thrived mainly in Eurasia between the third and seventh centuries.
The painting, currently owned by an individual in Japan, measures 137.1 cm long and 56.6 cm wide, and depicts Manichaeism’s cosmic view in vivid colors on a silk cloth.
The researchers, led by Yutaka Yoshida, a linguist and Kyoto University professor, said Sunday it is probably the only painting currently known that covers Manichaeism’s cosmologic view in complete form.
The finding was praised as epoch-making at a recent international academic meeting, the team said.
Yoshida said he expects the painting to shed some light on Manichaeism, about which much remains unknown.
The painting was probably produced by a painter in China’s Zhejiang and Fujian provinces around the time of the Yuan dynasty, which ruled China and Mongolia from 1271 to 1368.
How and when the painting arrived in Japan is a mystery, the team said.
The researchers concluded that the painting is Manichaean because it includes a priest wearing a white shawl with red piping that is characteristic of Manichaean priests.
The team said the conclusion is supported by Manichaean materials found earlier in China’s Xinjiang autonomous region.
Under the Manichaean view of the universe, the world is formed by 10 layers of heaven and eight layers of the Earth.
The painting depicts paradise in its uppermost part, the sun and moon below it, and then the 10 layers of heaven, the Earth and hell in the lowermost part. Angels, demons and 12 constellations, such as Scorpio and Pisces, are also included.
A mushroom-shaped mountain, called Mount Meru, is shown on the ground where humans live.
Manichaeism was founded in the third century by the prophet Mani of Mesopotamia in present-day Iraq.
Incorporating thoughts from Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Buddhism, it developed into a global religion.
It thrived between the third and seventh centuries in Europe, northern Africa, central Asia and China. It fell into decline around the 11th century before dying out.