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Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons: Nature, Literature, and the Arts


Guardian King of the Four Directions

Heian period (794–1185)
12th century
Wood with traces of color
Overall (figure): H. 33 7/8 in. (86 cm); W. 11 1/2 in. (29.2 cm); D. 87/8 in. (22.5 cm)
Credit Line:
The Harry G. C. Packard Collection of Asian Art, Gift of Harry G. C. Packard, and Purchase, Fletcher, Rogers, Harris Brisbane Dick, and Louis V. Bell Funds, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, and The Annenberg Fund Inc. Gift, 1975
Accession Number:
  • Description

    This altar—a railed rectangular wooden platform backed by a planked wall between two pillars—represents a Japanese style of Buddhist architecture. It is a replica of the altar at twelfth-century Amida Hall at Fuki-ji in Kyushū, built in 1986 using traditional materials and techniques by the Kyoto firm Yasui Ko-mokuten, under the direction of architectural historian Kakichi Suzuki. At its center is a once-golden image of Dainichi Nyorai, the supreme Buddha of the cosmos in esoteric Buddhist thought. He is the source from whom all other deities and everything in the universe emanate, as light does from the sun. His hands form the mystic gesture (mudra) of perfect knowledge, which holds the power to restrain passions that hinder enlightenment. With the left index finger surrounded and protected by the fingers of the right, this gesture expresses the all-encompassing union of the spiritual and material realms of being.

    At one time the sculpture also had a crown over the topknot adorned with images of five Buddhas, representing Dainichi's five forms. In keeping with the occult nature of this image, mystery and introspection suffuse its features. Graceful proportions made possible by a new technique of carving and assembling sculpture in sections are characteristic of images of the later Heian period, when courtly aesthetics were paramount. In the glow of its original gold-leaf covering, this Dainichi must have appeared to embody his name, the Buddha of the Great Radiance of Illumination.

    Standing sentinel at the corners of the platform are two armored figures of menacing mien. They are from a set of the Guardian Kings of the Four Directions, Hindu demigods who were absorbed into the Buddhist pantheon as protectors of the teaching. Their stocky figures retain the massive strength of an early Heian style and were carved from single blocks of wood. Only the arms, now missing, were carved separately.

  • See also
    In the Museum
    Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History