About the Artist
This sculpture was probably carved by a follower of Shinto, the indigenous religion of Japan, in the 900s. In Shintoism, natural phenomena—rocks, caves, waterfalls, springs, islands, trees, and mountains—are believed to be inhabited by nature spirits. These spirits or gods are called kami [kah-mee]. Shrines dedicated to specific kami housed objects like this sculpture in order to give the kami a physical object in which to reside. This sculpture was crafted to be a body for a kami, and was not meant to be worshipped as an icon or a religious image.
The carver expressed respect for the natural material of the sculpture by carving out of a single piece of wood. As Denver Art Museum Curator Ronald Ostuka suggests, “If you think of the spirit of a tree itself, I think there probably was a definite intention not to cut the tree or segment it, but to use it in its natural state. There may even have been an attempt to do as little as possible to bring out the figure from that wood, rather than carving in every single detail and making it look natural or humanlike.”
What Inspired It
A Shinto kami was generally seen as a sustainer and protector of the people. The kami took on many forms. There were kami dedicated to everything from rivers and food to creative abstract forces and exceptional people. Shrines served as the center of Shinto worship and helped maintain a harmonious unity between man and kami. Objects such as this sculpture were kept within the shrine and not seen by the worshippers—the kami were meant to be revered within the mind. The objects of Shinto worship were originally, in most cases, natural things like mountains, trees, and stones. But, influenced by Buddhism, they later came to include paintings and sculptures of human-like Shinto deities. Other objects, or “god-bodies,” created to house the kami included jade, jewels, mirrors, swords, and sword blades. Even though this particular object is in human form, it doesn’t function any differently than other objects that were placed in shrines. This sculpture is not a representation of the deity, but simply a body in which the deity can reside.
The loose robe and hat, with a long decorative flap hanging behind each ear, are based on the clothing of Japanese nobles from the 900s. The official’s tablet, held in the hands of the figure, is based on the plain wooden staff held by a Japanese ruler.
This sculpture shows little intention to cut or segment the wood it was crafted from. The artist probably meant to maintain the natural state of the material. There may even have been an attempt to let the figure emerge from the natural grain of the wood, instead of carving in every detail to make it look more humanlike.
Minimal carving is used to depict the features of the face. The eyes, nose, and lips are simple yet clear and graceful shapes. The fullness of the face is an expression of 10th century noble standards of beauty. Look closely to see the beard and mustache that distinguish the figure as a male.
Though it is slightly unclear, a whole seated figure is portrayed here; he is sitting cross-legged. If viewed from the back, a belt around his waist is visible, revealing the proportions of a seated figure.
Various cracks in the wood are the result of age. The carver used the entire tree, rather than just a section.