Pilgrimage Depictions in the Miraculous Origins of Ishiyamadera, a Medieval Japanese Scroll

Submitted by JessicaW on April 20, 2011

The library multimedia room was completely filled on the evening of April 13 with students eager to hear Dr. Ive Covaci’s lecture entitled “Pilgrimage Depictions in the Miraculous Origins of Ishiyamadera, a Medieval Japanese Scroll,” co-sponsored by the Art History Program and the Asian Studies Program. Dr. Covaci began by giving a brief introduction to Japanese scrolls and then told the story behind Ishiyamadera.

Japanese scrolls are composed of ink and colors on paper or silk and come in sets of 1-48. They are tied together by silk and are opened from right to left, and most alternate between text and pictures. The scrolls are stored in wooden boxes when not in use and can be up to 60 meters in length, telling stories of romance, comedy, satire, and even war. The use of scrolls in Japanese culture was most popular between the 12th and 14th centuries, but nearly stopped in the 17th Century when the use of books began to become prominent.

Ishiyamadera, founded in 749 by the monk Roben, is a Buddhist Temple in Otsu. Inside the temple there is a most sacred Buddha which is brought out once every 33 years, except for very special occasions. This Buddha is hidden behind curtains and is replaced with another during the years when it is not in display. The temple is extremely popular because of the belief that its main deity, the honzon, could perform miracles, which are what led to the creation of the 7 scrolls with the first being made in the 14th Century. These scrolls tell the story of the history and legends surrounding the foundation of the Ishiyamadera temple. Dr. Covaci made her own (non-religious) pilgrimage to Ishiyamadera in 2006, following the footsteps of the pilgrims who were there so many years ago.

Through both text and picture depictions of pilgrimages, the scroll is filled with empresses, monks, men, and women. These pilgrims made voyages to the temple because of their belief in its ability to perform miracles. The scroll tells of one miracle in particular, depicting the only scene – which is one of the longest in the scroll, reaching about 18 widths of paper – where the deity of the temple is shown in living form. In this scene, the deity is watching over a woman who came to the temple hoping to become pregnant with her first child. The woman is given a jewel by the deity while she is dreaming, and when she awoke she still possessed the jewel. She carried it with her the entire way home. Still, she bore a son. This story is meant to convey the temple and deity’s efficacy of producing heirs to the throne.

These scrolls are so important to the storytelling of the Japanese culture that although they are on display at some museums, they are also taken down often to be protected and preserved. When Dr. Covaci visited the temple of Ishiyamadera she was able to see the original scrolls but not allowed to touch. These scrolls are sacred objects and are fascinating to learn about in detail, which the students who attended the lecture were able to see.

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