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Heian Period

Updated on January 25, 2013


This era saw a temporary waning of Chinese influence and the gradual assertion of essentially Japanese design in the arts. In architecture, the demands of building the new capital at Heian-kyo (now Kyoto) led to the first palaces, temples and residences to be totally Japanese in conception.

Hardy hinoki timber remained the basic building material. From the simple traditional shrines and dwellings developed the quiet grandeur of the mountaintop monasteries of the new Tendai and Shingon Buddhist sects, the Euryaku-ji on Mount Hiei and the Korgobu-ji on Mount Koya.

In secular architecture, the shinden (aristocratic houses) and Amida halls (family temples) favored rich display and the extensive landscaped gardens for which Japan is famous.

Wood carving was the main sculptural form of the Heian period; figures are stylized representations of an expanded, more complex canon of gods and many exhibit a fullness and sensuality, the result of Indian influence, for example, the five manifestations of the Bodhisattva of infinite virtue, the Godai Kokuzo (mid ninth century) at Jingoji, Kyoto.

Outstanding among Heian sculptors was Jocho, responsible for the gilded images of Amida in the Hokaiji temple and the Hoodo of Byodin at Uji and founder of a uniquely Japanese school of sculpture. Towards the end of the period, sculpture displayed an increasing naturalism. A style of grotesque caricature also developed as seen in the wooden reliefs of the twelve Kofukuji Generals at Nara.

The Heian period saw the emergence of a secular style of painting, Yamato-e, depicting genre scenes and episodes from Japanese history and literature in vivid colors on long scrolls; for example, Takayoshi's Tale of Genji which illustrates a popular contemporary novel.

Religious painting of the early Heian period reflects the esoteric trends of the Tendai and Shingon sects with representations of the many deities and diagramatic pictures of the Buddhist world. In the late Heian (or Fugiwara) period, a mystical yet sensuous aesthetic emerged in religious painting, producing masterpieces like the graceful Death of Sakyamuni.


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