Letters in the Lotus: Rethinking Text and Image in Japanese Buddhist Art

“Letters in the Lotus: Rethinking Text and Image in Japanese Buddhist Art,” sponsored by the Japan Art History Forum (JAHF) on Saturday, March 29, from 5-7pm in the Philadelphia Marriott / Liberty Salon A – Headhouse Tower.

Complicated, conflicting, and even conflated, the roles of word and picture in Japanese Buddhist visual culture want for deeper exploration.

Examinations into the construction of meaning in Buddhist art
have generally separated image from text, but this neither reflects the
historical situation nor allows scholars to treat the innovative
collaborations between word and picture that operate visibly and invisibly
in the art itself. Text and image inform one another; analyzing one
dimension to the neglect of the other leaves rich meanings undiscovered.
Whether they share the same visual plane or interact intertextually,
exposing the collaborations and contradictions at work divulges new
meanings and compels different ways of approaching the objects. By
examining inscriptions on objects unearthed at Chōanji, Sherry Fowler
reveals text and image as co-constitutive in the manufacture and recovery
of Kyushu’s lost history. Juxtaposing intimate handscrolls and large
hanging scrolls, Max Moerman analyzes the profound impact of format on the
functions of word and picture and on modalities of reception in the
creation of Xuanzang’s pilgrimage narrative. Halle O’Neal’s paper
explores the performativity compelled in viewing the purely textual icons of the
jeweled stūpa mandalas. Sinéad Vilbar’s paper pursues the editorial
strategies of the overwhelmingly textual Illustrated Life and Acts of
Hōnen to uncover the cooperation of copious word and skillful painting in
narrative construction. Mutually implicated in the creation of meaning,
this panel brings together objects spanning centuries and various
sociopolitical functions and approaches them from the perspective of
text’s indispensability in considerations of Buddhist visual culture.


Sherry Fowler, panelist
Associate Professor
Kress Foundation Department of Art History
University of Kansas

D. Max Moerman, panelist
Associate Professor
Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Cultures
Barnard College, Columbia University

Sinéad Vilbar, panelist
Assistant Curator
Department of Asian Art
The Cleveland Museum of Art

Melissa McCormick, discussant
Professor of Japanese Art and Culture
Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations
Harvard University


Sherry Fowler
Unearthing the Twelfth-Century Chōanji Sūtra Transcription Project in Kyushu

A precious bronze sūtra container, dated to 1141 and previously buried on
Mt. Ya in Kyushu’s Kunisaki peninsula, was discovered in 1926. Its panels,
now held by nearby Chōanji, once formed a rectangular box that contained
thirty-seven bronze plates incised with Buddhist sūtras. The box panels
display lengthy incised inscriptions and images of the six forms of the
Bodhisattva Kannon. Beyond the object’s function as a container to
safeguard sacred written dharma for the future, the text provides
information on the circumstances of production as well as a far-reaching
relationship to the capital, while the Kannon images point to links with
local mountain deities. Chōanji has another unusual object with even more
copious inscriptions: a life-size wooden sculpture of a young boy with two
attendants dated to 1130. As explained in the inscriptions inside its
body, in addition to being an unfamiliar manifestation of Fudō, the figure
is also named as the local deity Tarōten who served as a protector for Mt.
Ya. Although much of Kyushu’s pre-nineteenth century religious history has
been erased, the examination of a combination of text and image in these
two objects helps uncover hidden relationships between the deities of
Kunisaki and their material manifestations.

Halle O’Neal
A Bodily Engagement: Reading Textual Images

This paper is about surface level things. It is about the craft and design
essential in creating such elaborate textual images as the Japanese
jeweled stūpa mandalas (twelfth-thirteenth centuries) whose central icon
is a reliquary composed almost entirely of scriptural characters. Most
importantly, it is about how the very production of the surface asks
certain things of us as viewers. Therefore, I consider what it takes to
engage the surface and how such encounters complicate the putatively
straightforward activity of viewing. I begin by mapping the text as it
builds the stūpa. Spelling out the many twists and turns the transcription
takes in constructing the tower provides three crucial insights I then
pursue in this paper. The first point concerns the performativity of
reading textual images and the role reversal of word and picture that
compel the audience to consider ways of viewing beyond the conventional.
The second issue is the inherent juxtaposition and dependence of
accessibility and alegibility, or the perplexing inability to read legibly
written text. Lastly, such an analysis uncovers the many non-hermeneutical
manifestations of text because it is through the surface that deeper
meanings are reached and the openness of text disclosed.

D. Max Moerman
Twice-Told Tales: Xuanzang’s Travels and the Modalities of Visual Narrative

Accounts of the Tang monk Xuanzang’s pilgrimage from China to India were
told in oral, literary, and performance traditions as well as in multiple
visual formats. This paper examines two such examples in Japanese Buddhist
painting to analyze the textual, visual, and narratological differences
between telling stories with handscrolls and with large-format hanging
scrolls. Both are fourteenth-century works associated with Kōfukuji: the
Genjō Sanzō e ascribed to the court painter Takashina Takakane and the
Gotenjiku-zu, or Map of the Five Regions of India, attributed to the monk
Jūkai. Although ostensibly the same story, the two formats reveal profound
differences between text and image and between modalities of reception.
The handscroll’s format at once guides and restricts the flow of visual
narrative, mediated through successive sections of text and image.
Although the view is intimate, it is always segmented and bound to the
progress of the tale. The map, on the other hand, collapses hundreds of
pages of descriptive narrative into a single global picture. Panels of
text and toponymic cartouches are laid out across the landscape:
linguistic objects that at once ornament, regulate, and obscure the
geography. These two works demarcate a field of possibility for the
representation and experience of visual and textual narrative in Japanese
Buddhist visual culture.

Sinéad Vilbar
Jimaki: The Illustrated Life and Acts of Hōnen in 48 Scrolls

The text of the Illustrated Life and Acts of Hōnen in 48 scrolls (Hōnen
shōnin gyōjō ezu) is voluminous, so much so that one eminent scholar of
Japanese illustrated handscrolls who was involved in the photography of
the set for a publication in the 1980s refers to the experience as
photographing the jimaki—“the scroll of text”—in contradistinction to
the customary term for illustrated handscrolls, emaki. The amount of text in
the narrative and the complex nature of the set’s construction have long
impeded the daunting task of in-depth analysis of the paintings and
calligraphy of the Life and Acts. However, since curator Shimada Shūjirō
and historian Sanda Zenshin first cracked the code of the narrative and
paintings in 1961, incremental progress has been made in understanding the
set’s unique contributions to the world of text and image in Japanese
Buddhist narrative art. Achieving further comprehension of the editorial
strategies of the compilers of the Life and Acts remains the key to
parsing the narrative. This paper presents the results of my efforts over
the last ten years to contribute to this goal. It reconsiders the set
through analysis of painting style in relationship to the compilation


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