Now on view in Light from Shadown: Gold in Japanese Art is this delicate, rarely-put-on-view hanging scroll.
The Descent of Amida
Japan, Kamakura period (1185–1336), c. 1300
Hanging scroll; ink, color and gold on silk
Gift of Yamanaka Jirō, 1961 (2904.1)
Medieval Japanese Buddhists believed that they existed in an apocalyptic age (mappō) that would see the decline of the dharma, or Buddhist teachings. During this time, it was no longer possible to attain enlightenment through the normal means of scriptural study and meditation. Instead, the faithful turned their prayers to the Buddha Amida (Sk. Amitabha), who had taken a vow to welcome all those who sincerely recited his name into his western Pure Land (jōdo), where they would experience immaculate rebirth inside lotus blossoms, and be able to continue their spiritual practice until they reached ultimate liberation from suffering.
Consequently, depictions of Amida and his attendants, in particular the Bodhisattvas Kannon (Sk. Avalokiteshvara) and Seishi (Sk. Mahastamaprapta), welcoming the souls of faithful into the Pure Land (raigō) became exceedingly popular, reaching their peak during the Kamakura period, when this painting was made. Paintings such as this often were displayed by the deathbed, with a golden string attached to Amida’s hand (or more likely in this case, the lotus that Kannon bears, in which the soul will be reborn), which the dying would hold as they fervently chanted the Buddha’s name, visualizing his appearance to escort them to his paradise.
Although the Pure Land sect of the Kamakura period often is described as a popular movement (as represented especially by the iconic bronze Great Buddha at Kōtoku-in in Kamakura, the funds for which were raised by soliciting the general public), its origins trace back to the sumptuous Buddhism practiced by the nobility during the preceding Heian period (794–1185). Scriptures from India described Buddhist deities as having golden-colored skin, and Japanese artists conveyed this literally by using gold pigment. In addition, the patterns on the figures’ diaphanous robes were made by cutting intricate designs into sheets of gold leaf (kirikane), which were then applied directly onto the surface of the painting; Amida’s robe alone has no less than eight different kirikane motifs. The museum’s The Descent of Amida stands at the pinnacle of kirikane technique, a lavish, difficult practice, which fell into decline after the Kamakura period.