Contemporary Japanese society continues to be strongly influenced by two ancient belief systems which have co-existed for hundreds of years: Buddhism, which came from China in the sixth century and assumed a particular Japanese character, and Shinto, which goes back even further and is local in origin.
There are many magnificent statues of Buddha, created in a variety of poses and materials in temples and homes across Japan. Shinto sacred images are much rarer and generally found in the inner sanctuary of shrines, and have been influenced by centuries of contact with representational Buddhist art.
This female Shinto deity, purchased by the Sainsburys in 1997 and carved from a single piece of Prunus, dates from the medieval period, c.1185–1333. Faint traces of colour can still be detected on the statue, which was probably covered in white paste and then painted, creating a polychrome effect.
The powerful presence of this beautiful carving is complemented in the collection by the head of a male Shinto deity, which the Sainsburys had acquired ten years earlier. It too is carved from a single block of wood and possesses a brooding quietude, resonant of the Buddhist tradition that inspired the Shinto sculptural craftsmen.
There is little Shinto iconography, so it is difficult to identify which deities are represented by these carvings.
To a non-Japanese observer the female deity is remote, self-contained, lost not in isolation but in calm contemplation. The exquisite simplicity of the smooth drapery carving, sharply highlighting the sleeves then softly flowing down to the ground unbroken by any pleating, conveys a powerful aura of stillness and peace.
However pressed for time I may be on a visit to the Sainsbury Centre, I always try to find a few minutes to stand in front of this statue with its unique emanation of the meditative spirit.
Elizabeth Esteve-Coll, Sainsbury Centre Trustee, Former Director, V&A
Facts & figures
For more information, please see our online catalogue.
Other collection highlights
Head of an infant (Baby asleep), Jacob Epstein
Modelled from life, the subject of this sculpture was the infant of a young model who came to Epstein’s Paris studio.
Fijian bird dish
This elegant shallow bowl was apparently created for drinking an intoxicating drink made from the root of the pepper plant that is still regularly drunk all over Fiji.
Portrait of Leon Kossoff, Frank Auerbach
Auerbach described his drawings as battlefields, yet Maggi Hambling finds this portrait forged with love.