Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Buddhist Vestment (Kesa) with Figural Squares

Edo period (1615–1868)
18th century
Body of the kesa: silk lampas; Squares: silk twill with supplementary weft patterning in metallic thread
46 x 82 in. (116.84 x 208.28 cm)
Credit Line:
Purchase, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, 1919
Accession Number:
Not on view
The principal Buddhist vestment, termed kashaya in Sanskrit and kesa in Japanese, can be viewed many different ways: as a garment distinguishing clergy from laypersons; as a textile assembled in accordance with the rules of a school; as a product of the pious donation of cloth; and even as a simplified diagram of the Buddhist world, or mandala. In Japan, the kesa standard for Esoteric Buddhist rituals consists of a bordered patchwork with seven columns (jō), the short and long pieces within them set in a framework of vertical and horizontal strips (yō). A square patch occurs in each corner, and, commonly, a pair of larger patches flanks the central column. Most kesa are rectangular, like the platform of a Buddhist altar, and the patches in the four corners, termed shiten, are said to correspond to the Guardians of the Four Directions (Shitennō).

During the making of a kesa, the central column, often larger than the others, is formed first, and the other columns ripple out from the center. This primacy suggests the column's role as the buddha of the mandala, which is often underscored by the presence of the "attendant" squares (niten) that flank the central column. These squares are sometimes said to stand for the bodhisattvas Monju (Sanskrit: Manjushri) and Fugen (Sanskrit: Samantabhadra) or for the two Benevolent Kings (Ni-ō), fierce guardian figures who protect the Buddhist Law. Although it happens only rarely, sometimes the six patches contain woven Sanskrit seed syllables that allow for the identification of the deities. The squares may also feature figural representations of the attendant bodhisattvas and the Guardians of the Four Directions. This kesa contains figural representations of both the Guardians of the Four Directions and the two Benevolent Kings.
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