The reception of the Todaiji’s twin guardian Kongōrikishi in 1203 was overwhelming (see previous blog), and an invigorated excitement for producing these centuries-old Nio guardians was born. In the early 1200’s, Jōkei I, a famed sculptor hailing from the Kei school (and a contemporary of Unkei and Kaikei), quickly produced a much smaller set of Kongōrikishi for the Kōfukuji in Nara. This pair emits a striking ferocity, which resonates in multiple ways, not the least of which is the Chinese Song Dynasty influence and the fact that these life-sized sculptures engage the viewer at eye-level. A few years later, just before 1265, another life-sized pair of Nio were carved as part of the Nijuhachi-bushu for the restored Sanjujangendo in Kyoto. There is little doubt in my mind that the unnamed sculptor of the Sanjusangendo’s pair sculpted them while in the very presence of Jōkei I’s statues, as they are clearly inspired in terms of proportions, pose, scale and many surface details — which could only have been so closely emulated via direct observation of the originals.
“Life-sized Kongōrikishi sculpted by Jōkei I, Kōfukuji, Nara, early Kamakura Period”
However, at the end of the Kamakura Period (1333), we entered into a “Dark Ages” of Japanese Buddhist sculpture, as the frequency and mastery of producing quality Butsuzō declined. Although some excellent Buddhist statuary has survived from these times, painting and calligraphy became the preferred arts, as warring factions across Japan also played in the role in dropping patronage for statue production. Additionally, many temples and shrines were victims of political unrest, and widespread destruction also claimed many statues which were inside them. We have records & extant works of skilled busshi and sculpting guilds who were active during this period, the most important perhaps being the Nanto school, which was founded by the son of Jōchō and predates the famed Kei school. Another school, the Shukuin, was active for less than 100 years, but is particularly interesting because it comprised mainly of former carpenters and other wood craftsmen who did not attain a formal sculptor’s status.
Most of the established Muromachi period (1336 to 1573) schools were based in and around Nara, yet amongst the traditionally trained busshi, untrained sculptors sprang up in many places and clamored to produce statuary for their local temples and shrines as the “people-friendly” Zen Buddhist teachings spread. The desire to sculpt the most popular figures from the Kamakura period was infectious. During this time of extreme civil war, fearsome gods such as Fudo Myo-ō, the Shitennō and the Jūni Shinshō were often carved, whose aesthetics could easily reflect a sculptor’s lack of formal training. And, to nobody’s surprise, there was a huge demand for every temple to have its own pair of impressive Nio sculptures to stand guard at the gates, undoubtedly inspired by the colossal sculptures from the mighty Todaiji.
Honestly, though… after either hearing about or seeing the Todaiji’s Kongōrikishi firsthand, who wouldn’t want a couple of gargantuan protectors stationed in front of their temple back home? I maintain the likelihood that many of these Muromachi and early Edo period (1603+) Nio sculptures were the result of local collaborations by nontraditional “sculptors”. There is no arguing that a good number of Nio pairs from these times are downright ghastly in their appearance — with severely disproportionate anatomy and borderline invented musculature, one may be left to wonder if some of these statues were intended to be anthropomorphic at all. Although Shitenno, Fudo and Jizo carvings from this time more successfully cling to traditionally sculpted images, there is a systematic degradation of quality as Kongōrikishi statues popped up throughout the country.
For example, the shifting torso treatment of many Muromachi and Edo period Nio strongly alludes that quite a few sculptures were the result of copying a copy of a copy. The further we are removed (in terms of both time and actual distance) from the Todaiji’s Nio masterworks, the more exaggerated and cartoonish many of the key details become, to the point of obscene caricature. Let’s assume for the sake of the argument that there were no professional bodybuilders in Japan during the 1200s to serve as artists’ models. Anatomy was not learned via human autopsies, as Leonardo and Michaelangelo practiced centuries later in Italy. To compensate for a lack of an intimate understanding of “perfect” anatomy, Unkei and Kaikei stylishly suggested the muscles around the ribcage of their Nio as balanced, neatly stacked spherical groupings. Not too little, not too much; relatively shallow and unifying overall.
But how did the outstanding and memorable details of these figures reach the local sculptors who were intent on producing their own guardians? Verbal and written descriptions of the originals, accompanied by rudimentary drawings or prints became analogous to hearsay in terms of what Unkei and Kaikei accomplished, dialing back the Nio’s morphology in leaps and bounds over time. In attempting to replicate quirky aesthetics with severely limited or no reliable visual references, sculptors from smaller and lesser-known temples often festooned the chest with deeply carved, confusing clusters of balls or oddly patterned egg-shapes. Limbs were also either subject to either being over-detailed to the point of gross exaggeration, or under-detailed as bas reliefs with superficially delineated muscle bodies on an otherwise stoic beam of timber. Laypersons emulating the established yosegi zukuri woodcarving technique were also perplexed at understanding how to seamlessly join the multiple blocks of wood together, particularly where extremities met the body at the shoulders and hips.
Regardless, there is a garish magnetism to these sculptures which, no matter how visually repugnant, are the result of countless man-hours of dedicated production by people who were passionate about capturing an aspect of their country’s most prominent temple. In modern times, Kongōrikishi are still being produced for both new and older temples across Japan, although the qualities of balanced proportions and yosegi zukuri techniques have been elevated back to Kamakura age standards. Clearly, modern artists are more capable of replicating ideal and realistic human anatomy, but Unkei and Kaikei’s stylish giant Nio are still being honored by modern busshi, as details like the “bumpy” oblique muscles and stocky physiology are homages (rather than debilitated facsimiles) of the Kamakura period’s masterpieces.
Sculptor and Art History hound David Bilbrey lives in Southern California with his wife and two kids
© Carving the Divine 2018