Handscroll; ink and color on paper; 11 3/4 in. x 28 ft. 3 3/4 in. (29.8 x 863 cm)
Fletcher Fund, 1925 (25.224a–e)
An ancient Shinto belief that the unpredictable, calamitous forces of nature are animated by tormented human spirits (onryō) underlies the legendary origin of the Kitano Tenjin shrine, dedicated to Sugawara-no-Michizane (845–903). Michizane was a distinguished scholar, poet, and statesman who died in exile, having been slandered by enemies at court. After his death, a series of extraordinary natural disasters and plagues caused the untimely deaths of his detractors. In an attempt to appease his vengeful spirit, he was posthumously pardoned and promoted to high office, but the disasters continued. In 942, Michizane’s spirit revealed his wish to be honored at a shrine dedicated to the thunder god in the northwestern section of the capital. He was deified as Tenjin, an ancient god of agriculture and patron of the falsely accused. Later, perhaps because poems were offered to him at the shrine, he came to be venerated as the Shinto god of literature and music. Among the more than thirty extant sets of handscrolls recounting Michizane’s life and the events leading to the establishment of the Tenjin cult, this version is second in age and quality only to the early thirteenth-century treasure in the main Kitano Tenjin shrine in Kyoto.
The detail of the first handscroll (handscroll a, section 3) represents the young Michizane composing a poem at the request of the Emperor, while his father, also a noted poet, watching proudly. The young poet is depicted by a low, red lacquer writing table placed on tatami mats. It is interesting to note that he is holding the paper in his hand instead of placing it on the table. On the left side of the table a pile of paper, a brush and two scrolls are depicted. On the right side of the table we can see a black lacquer writing box, with two compartments. The tray on the left contains the inkstone and placed above it, the water-dropper. The right compartment is for the writing implements. Similar writing boxes are represented in Kamakura period paintings, such as the Illustrated Legends of Ishiyama Temple (Ishiyamadera engi emaki).