History of Art and Architecture

Sara Sumpter Colloquium


Wednesday, November 9, 2011 - 12:00pm to 1:00pm

From the Monstrous to the God-Like: The Pacification of Vengeful Spirits in Early-Medieval Japanese Handscrolls

In the thirteenth-century handscroll set Kitano Tenjin Engi emaki(The Illustrated Legends of the Kitano Tenjin Shrine), the story’s climactic scenes are expressed via startlingly garish depictions of intense violence. The scrolls depict the life, death, and posthumous revenge of the ninth-century courtier Sugawara no Michizane (845-903), and in their most iconic illustration a bright red, muscular, animal-faced demon—a manifestation of Michizane’s wrath—flies over a scene of utter chaos, dispensing retribution from a swirl of roiling black clouds. The demonic Michizane is roasting his former rivals with piercing bolts of lightning, and they are shown dead or dying, some of them still on fire. Despite this startling representation of such a monstrous act, the end of the tale depicts the transformation of Michizane into a patron deity through the placatory acts of the people he has terrorized.

This narrative development reflects the distinctive Japanese conceptualization of monstrous creatures, which operates under the assumption that "monsters" can sometimes be made into "gods" through human agency. The spirits that animate these beings are neutral and liminal—at once the subject of mankind’s whims and the judge of our behavior—and consequently they cannot always be considered "monsters" in the traditional sense. In this paper Sumpter argues that the depiction of the transformation of such spirits from dangerous to benevolent characters is integral to the act of placation that took place with the creation of the handscrolls. Rather than being a mere metaphor for placation, the painted representation of such spirits is itself a pacifying act. Through a careful examination of this handscroll and analysis of the early Japanese religious practice of spirit pacification, this investigation sheds light on the uniquely mutable character of such “monsters" in early medieval Japan.