Exhibitions/ Art Object

Guardian Lion-Dogs

Kamakura period (1185–1333)
mid-13th century
Japanese cypress with lacquer, gold leaf, and color
a: H. 16 3/4 in. (42.5 cm);
b: H. 18 in. (45.7 cm)
Credit Line:
Mary Griggs Burke Collection, Gift of the Mary and Jackson Burke Foundation, 2015
Accession Number:
2015.300.257a, b
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 223
Pairs of lion-dogs (komainu), featuring leonine heads on canine bodies, are traditionally placed before the entrance of Shinto shrines to ward off evil. The figure on the right is distinguished by its open mouth (a gyō), while the figure on the left bears a closed mouth (un gyō). These features may echo the open- and closed-mouth iconography of niō, the pair of guardian deities who protect Buddhist temples.
Traditionally, a pair or lion dogs, or komainu,is placed within or at the entrance to the sanctuary of a Shinto shrine or shrine complex to ward off evil. The lions depicted in stone or bronze reliefs as temple decorations in the Nara period belong to a sculptural tradition that can be traced back to the Buddhist art of India and China, where images of the seated Buddha often included lions at his right and left, both to underscore his majesty and to protect him. The basic connection between guardian lions and komainu is obvious, though the latter did not appear in Japanese art until the Heian period.[1]
The term komainu has ambiguous and complex roots. The literal translation is “Korean dog,” which would indicate a Korean prototype;[2] in visual terms, however, these images appear to derive primarily from Chinese sources. The term was first used in early shrine and temple records of lion masks (generally identified as Chinese), musical instruments, and other items related to ancient court dance Bugaku, which incorporated various continental Asian elements, including dance forms from India, China, Korea, and Central and Southeast Asia[3]. The 780 registry of Saidaiji, Nara, lists a lion head with a horn, which suggests that this iconographic detail appeared on Bugaku masks as early as the Nara period.[4] And one lion mask from a Late Heian pair in Hōryūji, near Nara, does indeed feature a short horn on the top of the head.
By the Early Heian period, images of lions and horned lion dogs were paired and standardized under the general term komainu. A twelfth-century handscroll, the Shinzei kogaku zu (Shinzei’s Illustrations of ancient Music), depicts masked performers dressed as a creature that resembles the lion dog with an open mouth and others costumed as a horned lion with a closed mouth; both may have appeared together in the same performance.[5] No document, however, offers a specific explanation for combining a leonine head with a canine body, the basic characteristic of komainu sculptures. In various Heian. Kamakura. and Nanbokuchō examples, a single or split horn is found on one animal of the pair, an attribute that recalls the horned lion mask mentioned in the registry of Saidaiji. Although this feature is missing from the Burke pair, the presence of a small oval outline on the head of the closed-mouth animal suggests that a horn may once have been attached.[6] A consistent aspect of komainu iconography is the placement of the a gyō (open-mouth) lion dog on the right with the un gyō (closed-mouth) counterpart on the left. It is the un gyō lion dog that always bears the horn. These features were perhaps inspired by niō, Buddhist guardian figures whose mouths can also be open or closed. It might be noted that the "a" in a gyō represents the first letter of the Sanskrit alphabet, the "un" in un gyō the last; together these characters symbolize the alpha and omega—the beginning and ultimate end of all things.
There is evidence in Heian-period literature that small metal sculptures of lion dogs were used as weights to secure standing screens in private palace apartments and may also have functioned as guardians. The eleventh-century Eiga monogatari (Tale of Flowering Fortunes), a history of the Fujiwara family, describes komainu weights as follows: "The Fujitsubo [palace apartment] was now supplied with a dining bench, as well as a Korean dog and lion in front of the curtain-dais—appurtenances that made a splendid sight."[7] Because much of what took place at the imperial court had a major influence on Shinto ceremonies and customs, the practice of employing komainu as guardian images within the palace may have been extended to Shinto shrines.
The method used for manufacturing the Burke sculptures is yosegi zukuri (assembled wood-block construction). On the closed-mouth komainu a tenon is exposed at the point where the right rear leg, now missing, was attached, illustrating this type of joinery. Both sculptures were originally covered with polychrome as well as gold leaf applied over lacquer; only traces of these materials remain. The heads of the animals, whose abundant manes add to their powerful appearance, have roots in early Chinese depictions of imaginary lions, while their sturdy, massive bodies and frontal poses represent a continuation of the Heian conception of lion dogs. These late examples, however, with their heads slightly turned, are more expressive than their Heian prototypes and reflect aspects of Nara-period naturalism, which was being revived at this time. GWN
[Miyeko Murase 2000, Bridge of Dreams]

[1] Itō Shirō 1989; and Kyoto National Museum 1990.
[2] Related to the notion of a Korean connection is the legend that dogs were used in the third century to lead the empress Jingū's military expedition to Korea. See Kageyama Haruki 1973, pp. 62–63.
[3] Nishikawa Kyōtarō 1978, p. 20.
[4] Itō Shirō 1989, p. 44
[5] Shinzei kogaku zu 1927, n.p.; and Kyoto National Museum 1990, pp. 21–22.
[6] For possible Chinese and Japanese precedents of images of horned animals used as guardian figures, see Dien et al. 1987, p. 116; and Itō Shirō 1989, pp. 27, 45.
[7] Tale of Flowering Fortunes 1980, vol. 1, p. 225; and Itō Shirō 1989, p. 46.
Mary and Jackson Burke Foundation , New York (until 2015; donated to MMA)
Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt. "Die Kunst des Alten Japan: Meisterwerke aus der Mary and Jackson Burke Collection," September 16, 1990–November 18, 1990.

Richmond. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. "Jewel Rivers: Japanese Art from The Burke Collection.," October 25, 1993–January 2, 1994.

Santa Barbara Museum of Art. "Jewel Rivers: Japanese Art from The Burke Collection.," February 26, 1994–April 24, 1994.

Minneapolis Institute of Arts. "Jewel Rivers: Japanese Art from The Burke Collection.," October 14, 1994–January 1, 1995.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Masterpieces of Japanese Art from The Mary Griggs Burke Collection," March 30, 2000–June 25, 2000.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Celebrating the Arts of Japan: The Mary Griggs Burke Collection," October 20, 2015–January 22, 2017.

Avitabile, Gunhild, ed. Die Kunst des alten Japan: Meisterwerke aus der Mary and Jackson Burke Collection, New York. Exh. cat. Frankfurt: Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, 1990, cat. no. 6.

Murase, Miyeko. Jewel Rivers: Japanese Art from the Burke Collection. Exh. cat. Richmond: Virginia Museum of Fine Art, 1993, cat. no. 4.

Murase, Miyeko. Bridge of Dreams: The Mary Griggs Burke Collection of Japanese Art. Exh. cat. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000, cat. no. 36.

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