Exhibitions: Arts of Asia

Head of a Guardian

Before entering most Japanese Buddhist temples, visitors must pass large and imposing sculptures of ferocious guardian figures whose role is to protect the premises from the enemies of the religion. The aggressive stances and exaggerated facial features of these figures stand in sharp contrast to the calm demeanor of the Buddha enshrined inside.

This over-life-size head is from the figure of a guardian king of the Kamakura period (1185–1333). It was once owned by the Kōfuku-ji temple in Nara, and its vitality and naturalism are emblematic of the role of Kōfuku-ji in the brief but pivotal period when the Nara temples were rebuilt and refurbished following a period of political instability.

The head is carved from two blocks of wood with a separate topknot. Its rock-crystal eyes are painted on the reverse and inset. Each detail of the physiognomy and headdress is deftly carved and finished with polychrome, presenting an expressive realism. Examination of the interior has revealed graffiti left by the painter. The filigree crown is a later replacement.