In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Figuring Salvation: The Hōryūji Clay Sūtra Tableaux
  • Akiko Walley (bio)


Hōryūji 法隆寺 is a Buddhist temple complex located to the southwest of the city of Nara. It was originally built in the early seventh century as Ikarugadera by a royal prince named Umayato no Toyotomimi 厩戸 豊聡耳 (574–ca. 622).1 Ikarugadera burned down in 670, but the temple was subsequently rebuilt at the current location and was functioning by the first half of the eighth century as Hōryūji.2 The oldest sanctuary of Hōryūji is known as the West Precinct 西院伽藍 (Saiin Garan, Fig. 1). It contains a Golden Hall 金堂 (Kondō) and a five-story pagoda 五重塔 (Gojūnotō, Fig. 2) located side by side, surrounded by a corridor 回廊 (Kairō) that presently connects to the Lecture Hall (講堂, Kōdō) to the north and the Central Gateway 中門 (Chūmon) to the south.3

Click for larger view
View full resolution
Fig. 1.

Birds-eye view of the West Precinct, Hōryūji, Nara. From Asano Kiyoshi, Hōryūji Saiin Garan, Nara no tera, 17 vols. (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1974), 1:20.

On each side of the first story of the pagoda, there is a sūtra tableau of polychrome unbaked clay in a semicircular alcove. Located between two of the four posts that surround a central “heart pillar” 心柱 (shinbashira), it faces outward toward the corridor (Figs. 3, 4). The Hōryūji sūtra tableaux are panoramic three-dimensional landscapes, a type of temple ornamentation that first [End Page 119]

Click for larger view
View full resolution
Fig. 2.

Five-story pagoda, Hōryūji. From Asuka Shiryōkan, Konenrin (Nara: Asuka Shiryōkan, 2003), 5.

[End Page 120]

Click for larger view
View full resolution
Fig. 3.

Interior of the first story, Five-story pagoda, Hōryūji. From Hôryûji kara Yakushiji e, Nihon bijutsu zenshū, ed. Mizuno Keizaburō et al., 23 vols. (Tokyo: Kōdansha, 1990), 2, pl. 118.

flourished on the archipelago in the latter half of the seventh century. They represent four popular Buddhist scenes: the Vimalakīrti scene to the east, featuring the debate between layman Vimalakīrti and Bodhisattva Mañjuśrī (Fig. 5); the Parinirvāṇa scene to the north, presenting the moment of Śākyamuni’s ultimate extinction among his human and nonhuman followers (Fig. 6); the Relic Distribution scene to the west with the scene of the veneration of the stūpa housing the distributed bodily relics of the Buddha, and a casket in the background symbolic of the cremation of Śākyamuni’s body (Fig. 7); and the Maitreya scene to the south, presenting the majestic Maitreya, the Buddha of the future, on his throne (Fig. 8).4

The Hōryūji sūtra tableaux are the only surviving intact example of its kind in Japan, and the oldest surviving intact example in East Asia, providing invaluable insights into the artistry of and effect created by such ornamentation. The survival of the Hōryūji clay tableaux is a testament to the ties they (and the temple as a whole) maintained to the community through the subsequent centuries, though not necessarily always for the same reasons. The abundant documentary and physical evidence of multiple restorations attest to their continuous devotional significance, but (just as most other aspects of Hōryūji) the clay tableaux gained an additional layer of cultural significance in the wave of modernization that began in the Meiji period (1868–1912) as an epitome of early Japanese artistic skills and expressiveness—a sentiment that is widely shared even today.5

The clay figurines have been actively researched, particularly since the advent of art history as a scholarly discipline in the Meiji period.6 The study of these sūtra tableaux has been severely limited, however, by the fact that most figurines were moved long ago from their original positions. Confirming the subject of each scene through other means, much of the research done on this work so far has focused on interpreting the subject through historical and doctrinal evidence.7 Although there are significant studies on the circumstances surrounding the construction of the clay tableaux and their completion date, consisting...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 119-163
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.