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Head of a Guardian

Asian Art

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 Kofuku-ji temple in Nara, and its vitality and naturalism are emblematic of the role of Kofuku-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.
MEDIUM Hinoki wood with lacquer on cloth, pigment, rock crystal, metal
  • Place Made: Japan
  • DATES 13th century
    PERIOD Kamakura Period
    DIMENSIONS 22 1/16 x 10 1/4 x 13 15/16 (56.0 x 26.0 x 35.5 cm)  (show scale)
    MUSEUM LOCATION This item is not on view
    CREDIT LINE Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Alastair B. Martin, the Guennol Collection
    RIGHTS STATEMENT Creative Commons-BY
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    CAPTION Head of a Guardian, 13th century. Hinoki wood with lacquer on cloth, pigment, rock crystal, metal, 22 1/16 x 10 1/4 x 13 15/16 (56.0 x 26.0 x 35.5 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Alastair B. Martin, the Guennol Collection, 86.21. Creative Commons-BY
    IMAGE front, 86.21_color_corrected_SL1.jpg. Brooklyn Museum photograph
    "CUR" at the beginning of an image file name means that the image was created by a curatorial staff member. These study images may be digital point-and-shoot photographs, when we don\'t yet have high-quality studio photography, or they may be scans of older negatives, slides, or photographic prints, providing historical documentation of the object.
    CATALOGUE DESCRIPTION An over-life-size head from a figure of one of the Shitenno, the four guardian kings of the cardinal directions. The head was at one time owned by the Nara temple Kofuku-ji. The fiery eyes, furrowed brow, prominent nose, and open mouth present a ferocious mien typical of these Heavenly Guardians, whose role was to protect the temple's sacred precincts. The head is carved of two blocks of wood, into which the topknot is inserted. Crystal inset eyes, painted on reverse. The filigree metal crown is a later replacement. Remains of polychrome on the outer surface, and traces of the painter's graffiti on the interior.
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