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Kisshōten (Kichijōten)

Late 9th - 10th century
Artist/maker unknown, Japanese

This monumental image of the Buddhist deity Kichijōten (or Kisshōten, whose Sanskrit name is Srilaksmi) was carved from a single block of Japanese cypress wood. Only the hands were carved and added as separate elements.

The anonymous sculptor must have had a massive log available to him, as the diameter of the carved statue reaches 49 cm (19 inches). During the Heian period when this sculpture was made, most of the hinoki wood was harvested from the mountains of the Kumano region, southwest of Kyoto, the seat of the imperial government and aristocratic patrons of Buddhism.

Buddhism itself had been introduced from Korea in the mid-sixth century. By the eighth century Japanese priests traveled directly to China, and several important Chinese clerics came to Japan to transmit the Buddhist doctrines. The Chinese monks brought with them not only scriptures and religious artifacts, but also groups of craftsmen who painted and sculpted the Buddhist icons for the newly founded temples in Japan. The early sculptural tradition reflects the Chinese origin, as can still be discerned in this depiction of Kisshōten.

Kisshōten was worshipped in Japan from the eighth century as the goddess who provided abundant harvest, good fortune and happiness. She appeared in both painted and carved form as a Chinese beauty in the Tang dynasty style. The V-neck robe with its long, wide sleeves is tied at the waist with a ribbon, part of an apron-like front that forms a short panel at the back, and has three flowing scarf ends protruding at either side. The only accessory is provided by a narrow scarf that extends from the shoulders and wraps around the arms forming a double semi-circular layer at the front of the robe. The back shows the scarf draped around the shoulders, and is not as deeply carved or articulated as the front. The hairstyle is also in the Chinese style, with a flattened chignon at the top.

The sculptor has used the grain of the wood to accentuate the vertical lines of the hair and flowing robe, as can be seen now, but would originally have been covered with pigments over a layer of white gesso. The dignified solidity of the torso is counterbalanced by the deeply carved sinuous curves of the sleeves and scarves, as well as by the hands and face. The hands are most likely later replacements, but reflect the original iconography. The right hand is held in the gesture (mudra) known as segan-in, indicating Buddhist charity or granting of desires. In the raised left hand Kisshōten holds the wish-granting jewel (nyoi-shu), symbolizing her power to bring happiness by granting her devotees' prayers for good fortune and wealth.

Kisshōten's beneficent nature is here most beautifully evoked by carving of the face: the eyes gazing down at the worshipper and by the smile, at once reserved yet tender. Indeed, as the cult of Kisshōten grew, this deity transcended the role as spelled out in the Buddhist scriptures such as the Konkōmyō saishō-ō-kyō (Golden Splendor Sutra), to become part of the daily lives of the Japanese people. Her worshippers spread beyond the Heian court ladies to the lowly farmer praying for a good harvest. She became the ideal of beauty and wealth, often appearing in Japanese popular lore as one of the seven gods of good fortune. In this single-block statue the artisan has captured both the awe-inspiring dignity of a goddess, and the solid, down-to-earth quality of approachable generosity for which Kisshōten remains worshipped to this day.

Object Details

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