Portrait of a Zen Master

Period: Muromachi period (1392–1573)

Date: 15th century

Culture: Japan

Medium: Lacquer on wood with inlaid crystal eyes

Dimensions: Overall (figure): H. 37 3/8 (94.9 cm); W. 22 3/8 in. (56.8 cm); D. 18 1/4 in. (46.4 cm)

Classification: Sculpture

Credit Line: Purchase, John D. Rockefeller 3rd Gift, 1963

Accession Number: 63.65


This portrait of a Zen master is imbued with a compelling presence created by the realistic depiction of the face and heightened by its inset glass eyes. In contrast, the heavy robes that flow over the chair are conventionalized and give the impression of bulk and stability. While painted portraits frequently served as certificates of achievement, sculpted portraits of Zen masters were usually placed in the living quarters of Zen temples and were venerated as physical reminders of deceased teachers. Zen thought discourages reliance on written texts and the intercession of savior deities in the quest for enlightenment. Instead, the importance of one's teacher is emphasized. Relying on an intuitive connection between the hearts and minds of the master and his disciple, the teacher is looked to for the necessary stimulus to assist in the progression to the next level of spiritual development. The central role of the master-disciple relationship in the transmission of Zen teachings resulted in the development of priestly lineages.