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5. Jōchōyo: One Thousand Years of Impeccable Style

By David Bilbrey

Buddhist sculpture is a widely recognized art form that hails from many parts of Asia over a wide expanse of time. Along with the spread of Buddhism across many lands, incoming art styles influenced how receiving countries portrayed Buddhist figures. For the Asuka, Nara and early Heian Periods, major artistic influences came from Korea’s Unified Silla period (668-935) and China’s T’ang Dynasty (618-907). Among the telltale features of Buddhist sculpture from these periods are drapery folds which feel strict and unnaturalistic, often carved in forced parallels; and facial features, though somewhat soft, which convey a more angular or geometric structure. Of course, the specific identities which are being portrayed are rarely disputed across all three regions. However, from an aesthetic point of view, there is a distinct point during the mid-Heian Period when the “Japanese style” came unto its own, and we have one historical sculptor who was at the center of it all.

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Left: Seated Buddha. Silla Kingdom, Late period 8th-9th century. Said to be from Bowensa Temple site, Seosan, South Cungcheong province. Cast iron, H. 150 cm. National Museum of Korea: Author: Sailko

Center: Shakyamuni Buddha. Tang dynasty, Shanxi Museum: Author: G41rn8

Right: Heian, periodo fujiwara, buddha seduto, 1000-1050 ca.: Author: Sailko

Jōchō was a Kyoto-based busshi whose sculpting prowess was well established by 1020. Hailing from a long line of Busshi, he was an active sculptor favored by nobility and temples, and we have many temple records of the important works he sculpted, but we unfortunately only have one extant sculptural grouping from his life. Thankfully, though, the work that does exist is widely considered to be his greatest work, and it is of unsurmountable importance from late in the artist’s career, bearing his perfected style which still influences Japanese Buddhist sculptors to this day.

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Amitaabha Buddha about 284cm, Wood gilt, BODY height, ACE1053 by Jōchō : Photo: Public Domain

Completed in 1053, the Bosatsu on Clouds and Amida statue at the Byōdōin Temple in Kyoto is confirmed to be from Jōchō and his workshop, which comprised of upwards to 100 disciples at the time. The central Amida figure is attributed to Jōchō himself. What we see in this central image is a departure from the Silla and T’ang influences, in which the meditating Buddha is more simplistic and gentle, seated with knees wide and low, and a broad chest behind drapery folds carved with more care and attention to naturalistic (if idyllic) folding. The face is rounder and more balanced, emulating what was thought at the time to be a state of complete enlightenment. The proportions of the statue’s width in relation to its height are carefully calculated. A distinct departure from the Chinese influence, this depiction of Butsuzō became known as Wayo, which means “Japanese style”.

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The surrounding 52 Bosatsu on Clouds: Byodoin, Kyoto, Japan: photo: Public Domain

The surrounding 52 Bosatsu on Clouds were collaboratively created by the many sculptors of Jōchō’s workshop, which harness individual flavors of skill and talent under the unified umbrella of Jōchō’s direction. The central Amida image is also the result of perfecting the hollowed warihagi and yosegi zukuri approaches to woodcarving. These techniques allowed Jōchō and his team to plan ahead and work at an accelerated pace compared to the older, solid wood methods of sculpting. Jōchō’s efficiency and aesthetics elevated him to the highest rankings a busshi could achieve, and the canons & techniques he perfected set the stage for generations of Busshi to come. Indeed, to sculpt a Butsuzō in the manner which he pioneered is called Jōchōyo, which literally means “Jōchō style”.

In addition to the above-mentioned artistic contributions, Jōchō’s direct lineage also grew to become the three most important sculpting schools since the Tori school of the much older Asuka period. With the “In” and “En” schools of Kyoto and the dominant “Kei” school of Nara to carry on his traditions, it can truly be said that Jōchō was the patriarch of uniquely Japanese Buddhist statuary.

Cover Photo Public domain Attribution:

David Bilbrey

Sculptor and Art History hound David Bilbrey lives in Southern California with his wife and two kids

© Carving the Divine 2018