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Report on the talk ‘The Shōsōin Imperial Treasury: Reinterpretations’

In an exquisitely illustrated and engagingly delivered lecture, Yukio Lippit, Jeffrey T. Chambers and Andrea Okamura Professor of the History of Art and Architecture at Harvard University, introduced us to a series of striking new interpretations of the Shōsōin, the 8th century imperial treasury at Tōdaiji in Nara, widely regarded as containing the most important art collection in Japan. Small selections of its over 9000 treasures are displayed each autumn at the Shōsōin exhibition at the Nara National Museum, exhibitions which draw some of the largest audiences of any Japanese art shows. Highlights from the 75th exhibition in 2023 can be seen here.

The Shōsōin Imperial Treasury, Nara, Japan (available here).

Professor Lippit began his talk with an introduction to just a few of the treasures: a 7th century blue glass goblet from Sassanian Iran, the colour of lapis lazuli; a spherical silver incense burner silver from 8th century China, designed within a gimbal so as to ensure the incense was always held level within; and a gold-foil painted tray in the form of a lotus, made in China or Japan, and possibly also an incense burner, speaking to a somewhat understudied aspect of ancient timekeeping, a kind of ‘incense clock’.

The collection has often been regarded as comprising the ‘beloved palace objects’ of Emperor Shōmu, 650 of which were gathered from the imperial palace by his widow, Empress Kōmyō and donated to the Great Buddha Vairocana of Tōdaiji in 756. Professor Lippit proposed that the treasures in fact played a fundamental role in defining the late Emperor and his ‘Sinic imperial imagination’, in which he was the Son of Heaven, with a divine mandate to rule over the glorious ‘Middle Kingdom’ of the Yamato state, and yet in a humble way as befit a Cakravartin, or Exemplary Buddhist Ruler.

Professor Lippit identified four categories of treasure: imperial heirlooms (including a beautiful red wooden cabinet to contain them); relinquishments, or objects which symbolised what Shōmu had to give up on his journey through the 10 stages of heavens en route to the paradise realms of Vairocana (including weapons representing warfare, musical instruments and gaming boards representing entertainment); aids to his spiritual journey (such as the screen paintings of Chinese beauties adorned with bird feathers, comparable to wall paintings from Chinese tombs of the 7th and 8th centuries, often with Daoist overtones); and nine kesa, silk vestments, reflecting Shōmu’s status as Cakravartin. This new interpretation built on previous scholarship, including that by Kita Keita who suggested that the treasures listed in The Catalogue of Rare Treasures of the Realm, which detailed the objects donated by Empress Kōmyō, were in fact arranged in order of proximity to the Emperor’s body.

Shōmu was not cremated, which was becoming the normal Buddhist funerary rite, but was interred, as were his imperial predecessors and his later successors, in a burial mound just north of the Nara capital. His immediate successors were cremated and their ashes interred in temple compounds, indicating that Shōmu’s death represented a transitional moment in Japanese imperial burial practice. Professor Lippitt argued persuasively that the treasures in fact bear tomblike qualities, meaning that the Shōsōin treasury was akin to a tomb rather than just a repository, and that the treasures served a soteriological function, helping the spirit on its journey to Vairocana’s Realm of the Flower Treasury.

Nine kesa or silk vestments played a particularly important role in all this. They are the first items listed in the Catalogue of Rare Treasures of the Realm, as was the case at the great Famen Temple near Xian, the Tang Dynasty capital of Chang’an, on which the Nara capital was modelled. In a superbly clear and detailed exegesis of the 9-panelled bark-coloured kesa Professor Lippit demonstrated the performative and rhetorical significance of this exceptional and beautiful piece, on display at the 2023 Shōsōin exhibition. Likely handmade by Shōmu himself, this 250 cm long object was made of scraps of cloth with associations with the Buddha, fit to be worn by Shōmu as the Boddhisatva King or Divine Ruler, its variegated bark colour even proving that no living creature was harmed in the extraction of the dye.

Professor Lippit concluded his talk firstly with a consideration of the role in all this of the great monk Jianzhen (Ganjin) who arrived in Japan in 753 on his 6th attempt and administered Buddhist precepts to Shōmu and Kōmyō in 754; and ended with the contention that the Shōsōin is neither simply a tomb nor a repository, but rather a third category of place comparable to the buried palace, complete with its own array of some 2000 treasures, discovered in 1987 beneath the pagoda of the Famen temple, one of only four in China considered to hold true body relics of the Buddha.

We are tremendously grateful to Professor Lippit for sharing the fruits of his research with us, and eagerly anticipate future developments.

Professor Simon Kaner is Executive Director of the Sainsbury Institute, Head of the Centre for Archaeology and Heritage at the Institute, and Director of the Centre for Japanese Studies (UEA).