Faraway is close at hand in images of elsewhere

Report on the talk ‘Distinguishing the Phoenix: Conceptual Landscapes of Buddhist India in Medieval Japan’

The Sainsbury Institute was thrilled to welcome Dr Rachel Saunders as our guest speaker for this month’s Third Thursday lecture. Dr Saunders is the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Curator of Asian Art at Harvard Art Museums and is responsible for the Japanese collections at the museums. Following her recent (2021) publication titled “The Making of a Sacred Scroll: Explicit Intertextuality in the ‘Illustrated Life of Xuanzang’” (聖なる絵巻をつくる:『玄奘三蔵絵』における絵と詞], Dr Saunders adopted a geo-temporal approach to analyse two 14th century artworks, colossal in both size and importance: a 200 meter handscroll (divided into 12 smaller scrolls) titled Genjō Sanzō-e (玄奘三蔵絵, Illustrated Life of Xuanzang, Fujita Museum), and a 1165 x 1425 mm map titled Gotenjiku zu (五天竺図, Map of Five Regions of Tenjiku, Hōrūyji). Each painting depicts the famous 16-year pilgrimage of Xuanzang from China to Buddhist India (known then as Tenjiku, 天竺).

Xuanzang was a monk who later became revered as a monumental Buddhist figure. His pilgrimage was frequently documented through verse; however, when people began to relay his journey through pictorial means, the question arose of how a faraway land that had not been viewed, only described by written means, could be illustrated to patrons as a navigable landscape. This question was answered by Dr Saunders through visual analysis of the Genjō Sanzō-e and Gotenjiku zu. Methods discussed included the use of highly-pigmented blues and greens to overcome the mundanity of the everyday, world building using familiar Japanese artistic motifs, and my personal favourite – word-based play.

Figure 1 – A large serpent head in the landscape of Nāgarahara in Genjō Sanzō-e. 14th century, Kamakura period, ink and colour with gold, silver, and mica on paper, Fujita Museum of Art. Photograph from Literature & Aesthetics, 22(2), December 2012, page 200.

Word-based play made for a clever, compelling, and humorous way to illustrate the unknown, and was used consistently in the first few scrolls of the Genjō Sanzō-e. For instance, one scroll depicts various twisting, writhing figures, which could be interpreted as the bodies of serpents, to populate the landscape of Xuanzang’s travels to Nāgarahara. As Xuangzang nears his destination, a serpent head unmistakably appears in the background (see Figure 1). During the lecture, Dr Saunders construed this serpent as announcing the arrival of Xuanzang at the site of a stupa, marking his enlightenment by “roaring it into the landscape”. Given that the Sanskrit word nāga refers to a mythical snake or dragon, by painting the landscape in the form of a serpent, the scroll represents the sacred landscape of Nāgarahara through illustrated word-play.

As is customary of Third Thursday Lectures, the talk was followed by an active Q&A session. Topics ranged from the production process and stylistic features of handscrolls, to the customs of pilgrimage in Medieval Japan. I was especially interested in Dr Saunders’ response to a question regarding the perception of the scrolls by educated monks and aristocrats centuries after their creation. Dr Saunders explained that through diary entries, we can learn about the public perception and veneration of the scrolls, and the customs for the rare opportunity of interacting with them, such as having to purify oneself by eating a vegetarian diet. This led to a discussion concerning the importance of pilgrimage culture and how the act of planning and embarking on such a journey was a treacherous but merit-making feat; so much so, that to avoid the danger involved but still receive religious merit, nobles in the 11th century would substitute making pilgrimages for owning a painting that depicted Tenjiku!

All in all, this captivating lecture by Dr Saunders provided a rich and novel perspective of the travels of the transnational pilgrim Xuanzang from China to Tenjiku through extensive visual analysis of the Genjō Sanzō-e and Gotenjiku zu. Listeners were able to follow the footprints of Xuanzang in his travels from China to Tenjiku, albeit our virtual pilgrimage was perhaps more comparable to the 11th century nobles – from the comfort of our own living rooms!

Naomi Hughes-White

Former MA student in Interdisciplinary Japanese Studies. Digital and Project Support for Nara to Norwich: Art and belief at the extremities of the Silk Roads, 500-1100