Nara’s Kasuga Taisha (Kasuga Grand Shrine), like many other major shrines, has its own museum (or – as is more befitting to a sacred site – a “Treasure Hall”), and the Summer-Autumn exhibition of selected works from its collection is now on show. This small but exquisite exhibition showcases pieces that draw audible intakes of breath from exhibition-goers: among them, a magnificent suit of medieval armour, with a breastplate displaying a woven pattern of tumbling tigers amid blooming flowers and a skirt, armguards and bold helmet of thick, bright-red thread over which detailed, vine-like metalwork shows the auspicious motif of bamboo, tigers, and sparrows. It’s clear that this is not meant for battlefield action, which explains the show as a whole, for the same is true of the trove of other treasures on display. Like the suit of armour, which was reportedly an offering to the gods of the shrine by the famed twelfth-century military commander Minamoto no Yoshitsune, these are almost all such offerings, the function of which was to honour and celebrate the gods, and to bind a close relationship between patron and institution.
It was during the time of Yoshitsune’s rise that Kasuga Taisha was experiencing a resurgence of recognition and revival of interest after the installation of Regent Fujiwara no Tadazane as head of the powerful, imperially-connected Fujiwara clan: this was their clan shrine. And it is, largely, this time of prosperity and power – and the concomitant explosion of artistic finery found in the form of objects offered to the gods, or used in performative rituals – upon which the exhibition draws. It focuses on the patterning and motifs that adorn these pieces.
One can enjoy the materials on display entirely based on the theme of decoration, but the curatorship has ensured that the cultural embedding of decoration is also available to enrich interpretation. For example, since the Fujiwara clan favoured wisteria (their name translates to “wisteria field”), they added it to long popular auspicious motifs such as the matsu-kui-zuru, a flying crane with a sprig of pine in its beak, to embellish pieces used at their shrine. They also loved peonies, and both were used at different times as their clan crest. Other motifs, such as the cat-and-sparrow, were also adopted, as found on Yoshitsune’s armour as well as on a twelfth century sword mounting, in a delicate mother-of-pearl inlay that belies the weapon’s proper use.
Costumes for the courtly dances (Bugaku) offered to the gods are embroidered with mice, fish, and dragons, each set of creatures representing the dance to be performed. New versions of these – like the awesome 6 metre high taiko drums that loom over one of the exhibition rooms and date from the thirteenth century – are still used today in Kasuga Taisha’s Bugaku performances.
Two of the paintings will be switched out for the second installation of the exhibition, but a section of an early nineteenth-century copy of the medieval “Illustrated Miracles of the Kasuga Deity” currently on display offers a masterclass in Japanese picture-scroll aesthetics and techniques as well as a plethora of design motifs from the (even earlier) Heian period. Gorgeous colours, dead straight lines, the “blown-off roof” perspective (through which interiors are depicted in Japanese handscrolls), aristocratic women with averted faces and long black tresses peering into hidden spaces: all are hallmarks of the traditional handscroll. Here too, panel paintings of landscapes allow the viewer to see images within images. Parades also lend themselves to media that unfurl, and another handscroll, this time from the seventeenth century, is a perfect example. The “Illustrated Scroll of the Kasuga Wakamiya Onmatsuri Ceremony” is scattered with a procession of lively celebrants in pale blue robes and square hats decorated with dragons, observed by a more orderly line of solemn spectators.
Kasuga Taisha is a rich repository of historical artefacts, works of art, and religious implements. Like Yoshitsune’s wonderfully decorative suit of armour, these were often (though not always) quite impractical in the human realm, but functional in the sacred one. Many of them were devoted to the gods: some were objects that adorned them, others were donned by worshippers during rituals and festivals. The decorative elements were symbolic but they were also often invested with power to ward off evil influences, or to attract good fortune.
Kasuga Taisha’s exhibition showcases some of its most valuable and exquisite treasures, drawing attention to the specific aspect of decorative motif in the history of Japan’s sacred culture at one of Nara’s most important Shinto shrines. While some Kasuga Taisha-related works of art and artefacts have made their way outside Japan into private and museum collections, such as The Met’s fine “Deer Mandala” and the “Kasuga Shrine Mandala” at The Cleveland Museum of Art, it is highly unlikely that the offerings made to the gods that we see here will ever be displayed abroad, making this show a must-see for fans of Japanese history and Japanese art.
July 8th – December 13th, 2023 (closed on October 10th-12th and October 17th, for the rotation).
Kasuga Taisha Museum (Kokuhoden)