Illustrated Legends of the Kitano Tenjin Shrine (Kitano Tenjin engi emaki)

Period: Kamakura period (1185–1333)

Date: late 13th century

Culture: Japan

Medium: Set of five handscrolls; ink, color, and cut gold on paper

Dimensions: a: 11 5/16 in. × 22 ft. 7 7/16 in. (28.8 × 689.4 cm)
b: 11 5/16 in. × 25 ft. 3/8 in. (28.8 × 763 cm)
c: 11 5/16 x 274 1/8 in. (28.8 x 696.3 cm)
d: 11 5/16 x 224 15/16 in. (28.8 x 571.4 cm)
e: 11 5/16 x 352 3/16 in. (28.8 x 894.5 cm)

Classification: Paintings

Credit Line: Fletcher Fund, 1925

Accession Number: 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 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.