Distinguishing the Phoenix: Conceptual Landscapes of Buddhist India in Medieval Japan

Third Thursday lecture - Sainsbury Institute

Thursday 19 May, 2022
6:00pm BST - 7:00pm BST

Online lecture, via Zoom.
50 min lecture followed by Q&A.
Free and open to all, booking essential.
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Dr Rachel Saunders (Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Curator of Asian Art at Harvard Art Museums)

About the Talk

Buddhist India, known as “Tenjiku” 天竺 in medieval Japan, was the object of intense focus and religious desire as the sacred homeland of the Buddha, but from which Japanese devotees were irrevocably removed by both time and distance. Medieval Japanese Buddhists sought to bridge their geographic and temporal distance from Tenjiku by conflating Japanese places with holy sites in India, reconfiguring the contours of the local landscape through cognitive mapping to the distant, sacred, and unseen. Yet the question remains: when no-one in medieval Japan had seen or experienced the Indian landscape, how was the nature of a thing of which one has only heard tell, but never seen, discerned?

This question is literally asked, and answered, by two monumental fourteenth century survivals that facilitated virtual pilgrimage to Tenjiku, following in the footsteps of the celebrated Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang玄奘三蔵 (ca. 602–664). The Genjō Sanzō-e 玄奘三蔵絵 (Illustrated Life of Xuanzang, Fujita Museum), expands Xuanzang’s famous 16-year-long pilgrimage to India through 76 paintings and almost 200 meters of luminous picto-textual ground. A different picture of the same incredible journey is presented in 1364 Gotenjiku zu 五天竺図 (Map of Five Regions of Tenjiku, Hōrūyji) which renders a geography of recitation through the inscription of hundreds of place names. When read against each other, these very different versions of the same epic journey demonstrate two devotional modes of looking that resulted in the authentic production of sacred place-time in Kamakura period Japan, and which in turn, demand we re-examine conceptions of geo-temporality in contemporary art historical practice.

About the Speaker

Rachel Saunders, Ph.D., is Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Curator of Asian Art at Harvard Art Museums and is responsible for the Japanese collections at the museums. She earned her Ph.D. from Harvard University (2015) and is a specialist in medieval narrative and sacred painting. Saunders has recently curated the exhibitions Painting Edo: Japanese Art from the Feinberg Collection (2020) and Prince Shōtoku: The Secrets Within (2019). She was previously a member of the Japanese department of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (2004–11), where she worked extensively with early modern rare books. She has held fellowships at the University of Tokyo (2011–14) and at the National Gallery of Art’s Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts (CASVA), in Washington, D.C. (2014–15). Her recent publications in English include the books Painting Edo (with Yukio Lippit; Yale University Press, 2020) and the complete Catalogue of the Feinberg Collection of Japanese Art (Yale, 2021), and her most recent articles in Japanese include “Secrets of the Sedgwick Shōtoku” [ハーバード大学美術館所蔵聖徳太子二歳像に秘められた意味] (2021), and “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], also 2021.


Image: Takashina Takakane (fl. 1309-1330), Genjō Sanzō-e (Illustrated Life of Xuanzang) (scroll 6, episode 4). National Treasure; Fujita Museum.

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The Third Thursday Lecture series is funded by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation and Yakult UK.