Brief Identification Edit

This bronze statue, standing at 23.5 cm high, is a representation of the Shinto guardian deity, Zaō Gongen, from the Yoshino Mountain of Nara, Japan [See Edmonds, Religion and Iconography]. It dates to the second half of the twelfth century, between the end of the Heian period and the beginning of the Kamakura period. It is currently housed in the Museum für Asiatische Kunst (Berlin Museum of Art) in Berlin, Germany [See Leipe].

Prior to the introduction of the anthropomorphized Buddhist guardians in the 6th century CE, the original Shinto deities were natural structures, like mountains or rivers. With the introduction of Buddhist devotional art, the Zaō Gongen emerged as a fierce temple guardian deity [See Edmonds, Religion and Iconography] often depicted with his hair flowing upward and a stern facial expression in order to convey his wrathful nature, and stands with one foot planted on the earth while the other is raised [See Ryūken 1989, 197].

Technical Evaluation Edit

The majority of devotional figures from the Heian and Kamakura periods were made of gilt-bronze, though some were sculpted from iron. The use of bronze for religious figures is indicative of the Nara period and was used most heavily for the mountain cult that existed to exalt the deities of the then shamanistic Shinto practices [See Ryūken 1989, 199-200]. Bronze was first introduced into the territory that comprises modern-day Japan from China during the Yajoi (or Yayoi) period, from 300 BCE through 300 CE, and was first used to cast ritual bells. In subsequent years, bronze became a widely-used medium for devotional figures of both Shinto and Buddhist significance, during which time it consisted largely of copper, with trace amounts of other metals [See Edmonds, Sculpture].

There were two major bronze-casting techniques in medieval Japan. During the Asuka period and early Heian period, a method of bronze-casting known as lost-wax method was the most popular technique. The lost-wax method consisted of first forming a clay model around iron wire and subsequently drying the clay. Wax, generally bee wax or vegetable wax, was then added, followed by another layer of clay. The entire mold was heated to allow the wax to melt and drain out, revealing a more defined mold, after which the molten bronze was poured into the mold. After the bronze was completely cooled, it was removed from the mold. Oftentimes, after this process was completed, it was necessary to detail the figures, usually the faces. This process of detailing was mostly accomplished by using small chisels [See Edmonds, Sculpture]. During the Heian and Kamakura periods, hatchet carving was a common practice, usually used to detail the face while the body was left less defined [See Ryūken 1989, 203]. After the completion of the detailing, the surface was gilded with an amalgam of gold dust and mercury and heated, which left behind only the gold adhering to the surface.

The second common bronze-casting method was the piece-mold method, whose popularity rose towards the end of the Heian period. This process involved creating a form from wood or clay, applying a layer of clay on wood molds. The form was cut in half and made with an inner and outer layer, as well as with canals in order to ensure that the mold was completely filled with bronze. Additionally, a clay core was added in order to stabilize the mold. The mold was then dried and the molten bronze was poured in, with the details made easier by means of using the fine clay [See Edmonds, Sculpture].

Local Historical Context Edit

The Zaō Gongen is a iconographic figure of the Japanese religion of Shinto. The earliest surviving depiction of Zaō Gongen dates to 1001 CE, where the deity is engraved on a hexagonal mirror from Sōji-ji. The original depictions of Shinto deities were done as representations of the deities as objects, such as mirrors or jewels and were not depicted as sculptures until later [See Ryūken 1989, 197].

Buddhism, or butsudo, whose Mahayana sect was introduced into the modern-day Japan landmass, meaning "the way of the Buddha," directly influenced Shinto, or "the way of the kamis," with kamis meaning "gods." In its original form, prior to the introduction of Buddhism, Shinto was a highly shamanistic religion, with its objects of worship mostly embodying natural features, such as mountains and rivers. With the introduction of Buddhism in the 6th century CE, the Shinto kamis were anthropomorphized [See Edmonds, Religion and Iconography]. When they were first anthropomorphized, the kamis were originally depicted as their Buddhist equivalents [See Harris 2001, 32]. For this reason, the Zaō Gongen more closely resembles the esoteric Buddhist iconography of the bodhisattva Vajira Zao. The two religions were interconnected to the extent that it was common to not only invoke kamis at local Buddhist temples, but to also regard the local kami as a bodhisattva at local temples [See Edmonds, Religion and Iconography].

Heian monks were required to be learned in the arts, especially in sculpture and painting [See Ryūken 1989, 203]. For this reason, it is likely that this statue of the Zaō Gongen was created by a monk for his temple. Many times, statues of Shinto deities were made as small figurines which could be carried by monks or practitioners. However, it is unlikely that this statue was intended for this purpose, considering its size at 23.5 cm tall [See Leipe]. More likely, this statue was made in order to serve as the standing guardian over its temple. The Shinto religion regarded the kamis as so sacred that the depictions of the deities were often hidden from the public view [See Edmonds, Sculpture].

12th century Japan was a period where the aristocracy dominated Shinto religious life -- where only those of the upper classes were able to join ecclesiastic life. This led to a relative decline in the Shinto religion, as Mahayana Buddhism, which was equally as pervasive on the island at the time, appealed more strongly to ordinary citizens and those of the lower class [See Ienaga 1979, 42, 80]. Additionally, the exclusiveness of Shinto contributed to the widening inequality among the classes. Despite the growing societal inequity, the Heian period was a time of stability, which allowed for the arts to flourish within Heian society. Many medieval Japanese poems and various expressions of art survive from this period. The first known novel of world history, The Tale of Genji, was written during this period. Temples during this period reflect the rise in interest in arts, and became more colorful and intricate [See Picken 1994, 16, 18].

In addition, the Heian period brought an increasingly centralized state. After the capital was moved from Nara to Heian, (modern day Kyoto) in 794 CE, marking the start of the Heian period, the regimes began to more strictly enforce an adaptation of the Chinese penal code. The state also demonstrated its power in this period by instituting a program similar to the Chinese equal-field system, by which the state owned public land and allocated it to families based on the number of men in the family [See Ienaga 1979, 3]. The Heian period came to a close when the then leader, Taira no Kiyomori, lost the Genpei War to the Minamoto in 1185 CE [See Blair 2013]. It is possible that the guardian deity cults, such as that of Zaō Gongen, can attribute a rise in popularity due to the instability that the Genpei War brought Japan.

World-Historical Significance Edit

In the broader context of world history, Zaō Gongen, the Shinto mountain deity, demonstrates the interconnectedness and influence that Buddhism and Shinto mutually had on one another. Its evolution from shamanistic religion with natural deities, to the depiction of deities in representative objects, to deities in anthropomorphized form was influenced heavily by the introduction of Mahayana Buddhism. The Zaō Gongen directly resembles Buddhist bodhisattvas in its depictions [See Edmonds, Religion and Iconography]. Additionally, the Shinto kamis were often invoked by Buddhist practitioners, and were sometimes even included in Buddhist temples [See Picken 1979, 16].

Moreover, the Zaō Gongen is characteristic of the bronze art of the Heian and Kamakura periods, with the resurgence of the Chinese-introduced material as a result of the increased popularity of the mountain cult. The depictions of the Zaō Gongen are also indicative of the rise in the importance of art and literature that characterizes the Heian period, as their introduction as statues and figures demonstrates how the creation of art during and around the 12th century CE extended even to Shinto monks [See Ryūken 1989, 195-204].

Bibliography Edit

Blair, Heather. “Rites and Rule: Kiyomoir at Itsukushima and Fukuhara.” Project MUSE, Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 73 (2013): 1, accessed April 16, 2015.

Blair, Heather Elizabeth. 2011. "Zaō Gongen: From Mountain Icon to National Treasure." Monumenta Nipponica no. 1: 1. Project MUSE, EBSCOhost (accessed April 19, 2015).

Edmonds, Richard Louis, et al. "Japan." Grove Art OnlineOxford Art Online. Oxford University Press, accessed April 14, 2015,

Edmonds, Richard Louis, et al. "Japan." Grove Art OnlineOxford Art Online. Oxford University Press, accessed April 15, 2015,

Harris, Victor, Shintō: The Sacred Art of Ancient Japan (London: British Museum Press, 2001), 32.

Ienaga, Saburo, Japanese Art: A Cultural Appreciation (New York: John Weatherhill Inc., 1979), 3, 42, 80.

Leipe, Jürgen, photographer. “Zao Gongen.” Artstor (43.386).

Picken, Stuart D.B., Essentials of Shinto (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994), 16, 18.

Ryūken Sawa and 佐和隆研. Japanese Journal of Religious Studies. Vol. 16, No. 2/3, Shugendo and Mountain Religion in Japan (Jun. - Sep., 1989), pp. 195-204.