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Sacred Space and Japanese Art at the Spencer Museum of Art

OCTOBER 30, 2014 – MAY 15, 2015 / ONLINE

Entry by Matt Hobart

This small, portable shrine called a zushi in Japanese merges sacred and personal space because it can be held in the hand while serving as a container for a Buddhist image. Though it resembles a simple box covered in plain black lacquer when its doors are closed, extravagant designs and a colorful sculpture of a deity emerge when the doors open. This deity, Aizen Myōō, is associated with love and the control of passions, an important quality required to achieve enlightenment. The deity’s red color indicates his association with emotion, while his fierce expression is meant to inspire awe. The presence of Aizen Myōō makes the box sacred.

Ornamentation appears throughout the interior, seen in the blazing flames, the circle behind Aizen Myōō, and the gold patterning on the backs of the doors. These somewhat extravagant touches are not simply decorative; they embody the idea of shōgon, or sacred adornment. These embellishments enhance the holiness of the deity that may serve as a focus of meditation or prayer for the beholder of the zushi. Thus, the zushi allows for a special connection between the viewer and the sacred. Instead of the worshipper going to the space, the worshipper may hold the space.

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zushi (portable shrine) containing Aizen Myōō by Japan

Zushi (portable shrine) containing Aizen Myōō

Japan, artist unknown 
Edo period (1600–1868) or Meiji period (1868–1912) 
Lacquer, wood, paint 
Height: 16.5 cm 
William Bridges Thayer Memorial, 1928.1821