CLEVELAND, Ohio — It can be hard being a god — all that work to do creating vast universes; coping with plaintive entreaties from the downtrodden; keeping up an image of potency in the ecumenical deities’ club, with all those other divinities boasting about their sexier powers or larger flocks of followers; and weathering theological spats whipped up by the fallible faithful.
Some believers expect too much of their gods. Others, like the Japanese, have developed over many centuries a practical, useful, indigenous belief system, which has become known as “Shintō” (literally, “way of the gods”), although many in Japan might not refer to it by such a name.
That’s because Shintō is not a top-down, doctrinally and administratively unified or organized religion like that of, say, the Roman Catholic Church. Instead it conceptually links aspects of Japanese history and mythology, and its adherents, often in keeping with certain local traditions, revere various kami (meaning “god” or “gods”) — powerful spirits that are to be found throughout nature, or that are deified historical figures. Many of these deities are regarded both as phenomena of the natural world — rocks, trees, mountains, rivers — and as spirits that have taken up residence in them.
Now, in a stunning exhibition that examines the myths, beliefs, rituals, and theological developments that have characterized a religion that at times may seem ungraspable, the Cleveland Museum of Art is presenting Shintō: Discovery of the Divine in Japanese Art (on view through May 19). A decade in the making, it has been organized by Sinéad Vilbar, the museum’s curator of Japanese art. It brings together almost 125 works of different genres, many of which are regarded as sacred objects.
Among these fragile painted scrolls and screens, calligraphic works, wood sculptures, and decorative-art items, more than two dozen have been designated by Japanese government authorities as important works of their country’s cultural patrimony. As a result, they may be displayed only for short periods. (In Cleveland, there will be two rotations of such objects.) They have been borrowed from Japan’s national museums in Tokyo, Nara, and Kyoto, as well as from some of the country’s most famous Shintō shrines and various institutions in the United States.
“For followers of Shintō, the kami are here among us,” Vilbar explained during a tour of the exhibition just before its recent opening. “Visits to shrines or to the places in nature where they are believed to reside provide opportunities to personally summon these gods, pay them respect, or ask for their assistance.”
Since Shintō features no regularly scheduled, Christian-style worship services but instead invites the faithful to commune with the kami at jinja (shrines) on their own time, to suit their own needs, there is something easily accessible — and perhaps transactional — about the kinds of encounters it offers humble mortals with the divine. With this in mind, Vilbar opens the exhibition, which is divided into several thematic parts, by examining matsuri, or shrine festivals — celebratory occasions when, as she puts it, believers “entertain the gods.”
They are, Vilbar writes in the exhibition’s catalogue, “important observances for the communities surrounding shrines.” She observes, “Matsuri often have associations with the cycles of the agrarian year, or with the commemoration of the pacification of kami who have wrought natural disasters or epidemics.” In the past, some featured such sporting events as sumō wrestling, horse racing, and mounted-archery competitions.
Many matsuri are celebrated at Shintō shrines to honor the specific deities they shelter. Others may take place in neighborhoods near such holy sites, bringing the gods, in the form of statues or reliquary objects in which they are believed to reside or to be embodied, from the shrines’ inner sancta to the people. They are carried by groups of bearers in colorfully decorated, palanquin-like mikoshi, or portable shrines.
In the exhibition, the festive vibe of a grand matsuri is reflected in a group of small, carved-cypress sumō-wrestler figures and their referee from the Heian period (794-1185), and in a meticulously painted, more than seven-foot-long scroll from the later Edo period (1615–1868) of mounted-archery events taking place at Tōshōgū. That shrine in Nikkō, north of modern Tokyo, was built in 1617 as a mausoleum for Ieyasu Tokugawa, the first shōgun (ruling military general) of the Tokugawa shogunate; it also enshrined him as a kami.
On view, too, are painted folding screens in ink, colored pigments, and gold on gilded paper by the Edo-era master Einō Kano depicting lively bugaku — originally, centuries ago, dancing presented for the nobility — in a matsuri setting. Here, 24 different bugaku dances are performed by groups of figures in a wide range of costumes, their rhythmic movements spreading out across a pair of large, six-panel screens.
In a section titled “Gods and Great Houses,” the exhibition looks at how, as with the deification of Ieyasu Tokugawa, certain members of ancient Japan’s powerful, elite families also became venerated as kami, or how such clans established their own protective shrines.
The exhibition presents, for example, art and objects related to Kasuga Taisha, a shrine in Nara, in west-central Japan, of the Heian period’s powerful Fujiwara family, and from various shrines devoted to Tenjin, a ninth-century courtier who was known as Sugawara no Michizane before becoming deified as a kami.
Writing in the show’s catalogue, Kevin Gray Carr, an associate professor of art history at the University of Michigan, notes that Michizane was “renowned for his mastery of Chinese-style literature and poetry at a time when cultural authority was intimately bound to political power.”
However, Michizane’s detractors brought him down through slander, and he died in exile, only to re-emerge decades after his death in the year 903 as the deity Tenman Daijizai Tenjin, or “Tenjin,” for short; he became revered as a god of thunder, agriculture, poetry, and scholarship and learning, with thousands of shrines dedicated to him, where, today, visitors may beseech the holy one for assistance in passing their toughest school exams.
In the exhibition, a section of a long, illustrated scroll from the Kamakura period (1185-1333) shows the monk Nichizō strolling through the land of hell, where he encounters the deceased emperor who exiled Michizane. Feeling remorseful about what he had done, the dead ruler tells Nichizō to return to the land of the living and erect a shrine to placate Michizane’s angry spirit.
That action led to the ex-courtier’s deification as Tenjin. Mostly monochromatic, with precisely rendered human figures, phantoms, and flames, the draftsmanship that characterizes this and so many ancient Japanese illustrated scrolls reveals some of the roots of the expressive, inventive drawing styles found in many modern manga (comic books).
Shintō also looks at how numerous kami were given physical form as wooden sculptures, often made of Japanese cypress. (Over the centuries, their painted surfaces have lost their colors.) Such depictions are known as “shinzō” (images or portraits of gods), but as Shigeki Iwata, the special research chair at the Nara National Museum, observes in the exhibition’s catalogue, even nowadays, “some shrines do not revere” such statues of kami but instead “simply include stones, mirrors, swords, and the like as objects in which kami reside.”
Nevertheless, in the ancient past, just as they are today, many shrines were popular destinations for pilgrims and sightseers. One of the most interesting images on view, the Edo-era “Nachi Pilgrimage Mandala,” was produced to promote Nachi Taisha, a holy site on a peninsula in south-central Japan that is revered for its natural beauty and healing power. Vilbar explained that this shrine is dedicated to a goddess of fertility who came to be regarded as the local manifestation of the Buddhist bodhisattva Kannon.
Vilbar said, “The Nachi Pilgrimage Mandala’ shows visitors arriving at the entrance to the shrine complex and making their way through its grounds. They pass the Dragon King, a resident deity, and view the site’s famous waterfall. Back when such images were made, itinerant monks and nuns used them to promote travel to such holy places. You can even see where this picture was repeatedly folded and creased by the people who used it as an advertising-performance prop!”
In one of the exhibition’s most spectacular spaces, three large display cases feature sets of sumptuous, Edo-period painted screens that glisten with textured gold leaf and, similarly, celebrate what Vilbar calls “moving with the gods,” or the popular tradition of making pleasure trips to favorite shrines during cherry-blossom viewing season, for matsuri events, or at holiday times.
Elsewhere, the show explores the complex subject of Buddhism’s unique blending or overlapping with Shintō practices in ancient Japan. Buddhism is believed to have been introduced to Japan in the sixth century. In time, some Buddhist deities found expression in Shintō-related art and in its pantheon, in the form of kami counterparts. As Iwata points out, sometimes Buddhist temples were even established on the grounds of shrines.
As Kōsei Taniguchi, the curator of painting at the Nara National Museum, also explains in the show’s catalogue, from a Buddhist standpoint, Shintō’s kami were viewed as “provisional manifestations” or so-called flowing traces “of Buddhist deities who constituted the primary entities […] of Buddhism and made themselves manifest in Japan to save sentient beings.” Thanks to such conceptual-theological acrobatics, Buddhism managed to identify its own source deities as those whose “flowing traces” were enshrined as kami at Shintō’s holy sites.
In any case, with the restoration of the emperor to power in 1868 following a long period of rule by military leaders, and the new government’s determined efforts to modernize Japan, kami veneration and Buddhism began to be officially separated, leading to the emergence of so-called State Shintō.
That ideological takeover of the native belief system emphasized the emperor’s divine origins and viewed him as a living god, while politicizing Shintō’s religious practices. (Japan’s Shōwa-era emperor, Hirohito, was forced by the victors at the end of World War II to renounce his divine status, and the nation’s postwar constitution designated the monarch a “symbol of the state” and a “unifier of the people.”)
Given the fragility of the objects on display, Shintō will not travel to other venues; it will be seen only in Cleveland. That Vilbar and her colleagues were able to assemble such a remarkable, highly specialized survey is a testament both to their tenacity and to the high regard in which the Cleveland Museum of Art, with its encyclopedic collections, including extensive Asian holdings, is held by other institutions.
In speaking with Vilbar, it became clear that she and her collaborators in the US and Japan approached their subject matter with, well, a certain kind of reverence. In shining a light on the history and art of one of the world’s most intriguing religious systems, Shintō serves as a reminder of what richly imaginative work it can be for mere mortals to create — and nurture — their gods.
Shintō: Discovery of the Divine in Japanese Art continues at the Cleveland Museum of Art (11150 East Boulevard, Cleveland, Ohio) through June 30. The exhibition is organized by Sinéad Vilbar, curator of Japanese Art.