History of Art and Architecture

Elizabeth Self Colloquium


Wednesday, February 15, 2012 - 12:00pm to 1:00pm

Preaching on the Margins: The Depiction of Outcasts in the Ippen Hijiri-e

Elizabeth Self, Masters Candidate, History of Art and Architecture, University of Pittsburgh

The Ippen Hijiri-e (1299) is a set of twelve Japanese handscrolls documenting the religious life and beliefs of Ippen (1234-1289), itinerant monk and founder of the Ji Sect of Pure Land Buddhism. The scrolls are unique for the inclusion of more than one hundred outcasts, or hinin (non-persons). In 14th-century Japan, outcasts were often despised and discriminated against because of their disregard for Buddhist proscriptions against killing. Located outside of the mainstream social order, outcasts were relegated to the periphery of society, and forced to make their homes in marginal spaces like dry riverbeds, roadsides, and shantytowns.

Although scholars have often commented on the unusual number of outcasts in the Ippen Hijiri-e, they have not been closely examined in the English-language literature. Yet the large number of outcasts and the clarity with which their lives were depicted make their importance in the scrolls clear.  In pre-modern Japanese art history, the focus is often on the powerful and rich, who leave behind architecture, painting, and literature. But the dispossessed, like the outcasts in the scrolls, leave behind few traces in history. Scrolls like the Ippen Hijiri-e provide a unique opportunity to understand the lives of outcasts.

Why did the creators of the Ippen Hijiri-e choose to include so many outcasts, and what purpose did they serve? In this talk, I will investigate how depictions of outcasts function within the Ippen Hijiri-e. Drawing on both historical sources and visual analysis, I will examine where outcasts can be found in the scrolls, and what part they played in the story of Ippen’s life. Finally, I will trace the reasons, both religious and secular, which may have motivated the Ippen Hijiri-e’s creators to include outcasts.