Sacred Space and Japanese Art at the Spencer Museum of Art


Actual geographical locations or imagined spaces where divinities are believed to manifest, miracles occur, or ritual activity is carried out may be considered sacred. Works in this exhibition, which challenge viewers to confront ways that objects can construct as well as bolster the identities of revered spaces in Japan, vary widely in media (from sculpture to photography), in religious perspective (Shinto, Buddhism, and folk religion), and in time period (from prehistoric to contemporary times).

All the works in the exhibition come from the Spencer Museum of Art collection, with the exception of four prints borrowed from a private collection. These four lavishly colored prints were made in 1858–1859 and come from the series Thirty-three temple pilgrimage of the western country, chronicle of Kannon miracles (Saikoku sanjūsansho, Kannon reigenki) illustrated by the well-known Edo period (1615–1868) print artists Utagawa Hiroshige II (1826–1869) and Utagawa Kunisada (1786–1864), and published by Yamadaya Shōjirō (ca. 1851–ca. 1866). By the 16th century, thirty-three temples dedicated to the Buddhist deity Kannon (Skr. Avalokiteśvara) in the western part of Japan, known as Saikoku (also Saigoku) or “western country,” became popular destinations for pilgrims. The Saikoku pilgrimage route spans more than 1,000 kilometers, with some temples located within cities that are easy to access and others located on the tops of mountains that require arduous travel. Each print is dedicated to one of the thirty-three temples along the route, and each includes a collaborative composition of a framed illustration of the temple grounds by Hiroshige II above and an illustration of a miraculous legend about the place by Kunisada below. These prints, of which only a few include an image of the temple’s main deity Kannon, blur the lines between devotional imagery and popular subject matter. While the reputations of the individual locations are enhanced by their participation in a collective sacred space dedicated to Kannon, the prints encourage visits to the temples for reasons of piety or simple curiosity.

Seven students participated in the exhibition as members of the fall 2014 history of art seminar “Sacred Space and Japanese Art,” taught by Dr. Sherry Fowler, associate professor of Japanese art history. Yen-yi Chan, Emily Cowan, Matthew Hobart, YeGee Kwon, Sasha Miller, Eunho Park, and Pinyan Zhu each wrote two of the catalogue entries for the exhibition. In addition, Dr. Fowler wrote two entries, and the exhibition’s consultant, Dr. Masaaki Morishita, associate professor of international management, Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University (APU) in Beppu, Japan, contributed one entry. Beyond the online component of this exhibition, students presented on their individual selections, which were on display throughout the Spencer Museum of Art on October 28, 2014.

The class would like to thank Spencer Museum of Art staff members Kate Meyer, assistant curator, works on paper; Celka Straughn, Andrew W. Mellon director of academic programs; William Hopkins, web developer; Janet Dreiling, assistant director for collections, Elizabeth Kanost, communications coordinator, and the anonymous private collector for their kind assistance with the exhibition and website.

Sherry Fowler

Catalogue Entries

Selected images