Andrew Watsky: Chikubushima

Watsky Chikubushima cover

Chikubushima: Deploying the Sacred Arts in Momoyama Japan

University of Washington Press, 2003

Chikubushima, a sacred island north of the ancient capital of Kyoto, attracted the attention of Japan’s rulers in the Momoyama period (1568–1615) and became a repository of their art, including a lavishly decorated building dedicated to the worship of Benzaiten. In this meticulous and lucid study, Andrew Watsky keenly illustrates how private belief and political ambition influenced artistic production at the intersection of institutional Buddhism and Shinto during this tumultuous period of rapid and radical political, social, and aesthetic changes. He offers substantial conclusions not only about this specific site, but also, more broadly, about the nature of art production in Japan and how perceptions of the sacred shaped the concerns and actions of the secular rulers.

The patrons of the island included the dominant political figures of the time: the late-16th-century ruler Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537–1598) who supported numerous projects at the apogee of his power and his heir Hideyori (1593–1615), as well as their rival and eventual successor to national hegemony, Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542–1616). After Hideyoshi’s death, the Toyotomi clan struggled to retain their power and sought new opportunities to position themselves as chief conduits of divine protection and beneficence for the realm. They enacted and signified this role by zealous, indefatigable sponsorship of sacred architecture and its ornament, icons, and rituals.

In the early 17th century, the Toyotomi clan sponsored a major refurbishing of the Benzaiten Hall on Chikubushima, transporting a highly ornamented structure from Kyoto to be installed as its core. Enveloped in polychrome paintings by the Kano workshop (the leading painting studio of the period), black-and-gold lacquer, gilt metalwork, and pictorial relief wood carvings, this core is the most complete ensemble of ornament and architecture surviving from the Momoyama period. Watsky has had unique access to the island, and many of the images included here have not previously been published.

More information