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Saimyoji Temple contains remarkable Buddhist art. (Yuta1127 /Adobe Stock) Insert: One of the paintings revealed with infrared imagery. (Noriaki Ajima)

Buddhist Art Found Hidden from the Naked Eye in Japanese Temple


Technology has allowed researchers many more insights into the past in recent years and helped several surprising discoveries to be made. Now, experts in Japan have used infrared camera technology to discover eight masterpieces of Buddhist art in a famous temple. These long-lost paintings of saints may be over 1200 years old.

A team of experts on Japanese art, including Noriaki Ajima of Hiroshima University and Yukari Takama of Osaka Kyoiku University, made the discoveries at Saimyoji temple, in Kora in the Prefecture of Shiga. The temple dates to at least the Kamakura period (12th and 13th century AD) and today it is used by the Tendai sect of Buddhism.

Saimyoji temple is famous for its paintings and the fact that it is built without the use of nails. This temple is regarded as a Japanese National Treasure and many visit it in the Fall to see it’s cherry blossoms and the leaves falling from its many maple trees.

Saimyoji temple pagoda. (Yuta1127 /Adobe Stock)

Saimyoji temple pagoda. ( Yuta1127 /Adobe Stock)

Buddhist Art Found on Columns

The experts discovered the Buddhist artwork after taking infrared images in the temple’s main hall. This allowed them to capture images that cannot be seen by the human eye. They were able to capture images that had long been hidden beneath layers of black soot on columns. In total, they found eight paintings. Archaeology reports that ‘The photographs revealed four images of Buddhist saints on each of the columns.’

The Buddhist saints in the paintings would have helped the faithful to achieve salvation and free them from eternal suffering. The paintings were found ‘on each column at the right and left sides of the “shumidan” platform in the center of the main hall,’ reports The Asahi Shimbun . This platform is where the temple’s main deity is placed in a shrine and where a number of Buddhist statues stand.

The Buddhist art was discovered by taking infrared images of the temple’s columns. (Noriaki Ajima and Yukari Takama)

The Buddhist art was discovered by taking infrared images of the temple’s columns. ( Noriaki Ajima and Yukari Takama )

A Once-in-a-Lifetime Opportunity

The four saints on each column are drawn in two rows and cover an area of 1.5 feet (45.72 cm). The images of the saints are about half a foot (15.24 cm) tall. Behind them there is a depiction of a crowd. In the paintings the Buddhist saints are depicted in a naturalistic manner and they were once painted in bright colors. Some ornate patterns and designs were discovered on the upper reaches of the columns.

It was known that there was Buddhist art painted on the columns but it had not been properly studied. This was because of the columns’ location near the shumidan. The many statues prevented researchers from examining them.

However, the statues were removed and placed in a public exhibition called ‘Timeless Conversations 2020: Voices from Japanese Art of the Past and Present’ in Tokyo, in recent months. This allowed researchers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take infrared images of the columns.

The Dating Controversy

The researchers believe that the original paintings may date to Middle Ages. They explain, “the paintings could date to the latter half of the seventh century during the Asuka Period (592-710) since the saints resemble the Kudara Kannon statue.”

The Kudara Kannon statue is one of Japan’s most famous pieces of art and it is held at the Horyuji temple, in Nara. The researchers also believe that some restoration work was carried out on the Buddhist art depicting the saints during the Edo Period (1603-1867).

Replica of the Kudara Kannon statue at the British Museum. (CC BY 2.0)

Replica of the Kudara Kannon statue at the British Museum. ( CC BY 2.0 )

Archaeology reports that the ‘Scholars disagree on when the artworks could have been created.’ One expert, in particular, believes that the Buddhist art is not as old as claimed and that it is not similar to the statue in the temple at Nara.

Prof. Yoshitaka Ariga, of the Tokyo University of the Arts, does not believe that the paintings date from the Asuka era. He told The Asahi Shimbun that “it’s unthinkable that they are from the Asuka Period, given the theme and composition of the paintings.”

Prof. Agri believes that the researchers who identified the Buddhist art on the temple columns need to re-examine their findings. He also told The Asahi Shimbun , that “It is an important discovery that Buddhist paintings were drawn on columns,” and this will allow a better understanding of the history of the temple and the evolution of painting in Japan.

The discovery of the long-lost Buddhist artwork will add to the reputation of the Saimyoji Temple among both Buddhists and Japanese art lovers.

Top image: Saimyoji Temple contains remarkable Buddhist art. ( Yuta1127 /Adobe Stock) Insert: One of the paintings revealed with infrared imagery. ( Noriaki Ajima )

By Ed Whelan

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My name is Edward Whelan and I graduated with a PhD in history in 2008. Between 2010-2012 I worked in the Limerick City Archives. I have written a book and several peer reviewed journal articles. At present I am a... Read More

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