National TreasureTales of the Buddhist Hells

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  • 紙本著色地獄草紙
  • 1 scroll
  • Ink and colors on paper
  • H 26.5, L 454.7
  • Heian period/12th century
  • Nara National Museum
  • 644

  This illustrated scroll (emaki) consists of seven painted scenes, six of which are accompanied by text. The scenes were based on descriptions of the sixteen sub-hells given in Kise-kyo Sutra, which was translated into Chinese by the Indian translator-priest Jñānagupta in Sui dynasty of China. According to the sutra, around the eight main hells lie sixteen sub-hells: the hells of (1) The Black Sand Cloud (黒雲沙), (2) Excrement (糞屎泥), (3) The Five Prongs (五叉), (4) Starvation (飢餓), (5) Searing Thirst (燋渇), (6) Pus and Blood (膿血), (7) The Single Bronze Cauldron (一銅釜), (8) Many Bronze Cauldrons (多銅釜), (9) The Iron Mortar (鉄磑), (10) Measures (凾量), (11) The Flaming Rooster (鶏), (12) The River of Ashes (灰河), (13) The Grinder (斫截), (14) Sword Leaves (剣葉), (15) Foxes and Wolves (狐狼), and (16) Freezing Ice (寒氷). Today, these scenes are ordered such that the second, tenth, ninth, eleventh, first, sixth, and fifteenth hells appear in succession. A scroll fragment of the Hell of the Single Bronze Cauldron in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston is thought to have originally been part of the set held by Nara National Museum. According to one view, however, the seventh scene, rather than depicting the Hell of Foxes and Wolves in Kise-kyo Sutra, represents the Hell of Wolf Ghost (狼野干泥梨) in Dai Rotan-kyo Sutra.
  Each section of the text begins with the phrase, “There is yet another hell,” to which is added a description based on Kise-kyo Sutra, in which the cause for the sinners’ fall into a particular hell is recorded.
  The paintings are executed with supple lines embellished with a variety of dark, rich colors. They have a somewhat oppressive air and yet at the same time suggest a sense of transcendental peacefulness. The style of the Hell of the Iron Mortar recalls the frontispiece of Chûsonji-kyo Sutra, while that of the Hell of the Flaming Rooster shows the influence of Chinese paintings of the Sung dynasty. This handscroll has the most delicate expression of all the extant illustrated handscrolls of the Six Realms (Rokudo emaki), a category that includes other Buddhist hells scrolls (Jigoku Zoshi), The Scroll of the Hell for Monks (Shamon Jigoku Zoshi), The Hungry Ghosts Scroll (Gaki Zoshi), The Extermination of Evil (Hekija e), and The Scroll of Diseases and Deformities (Yamai Zoshi).
  It is highly probable that these illustrated handscrolls of the Six Realms correspond to the paintings of the Six Realms (Rokudo e) mentioned in textual sources, which were commissioned by Emperor Goshirakawa (1127-1192) and stored originally in the Treasure Hall of Rengeo-in Temple.
  This handscroll was preserved in Daisho-in Temple in Tokyo until the Meiji period (1868-1912) and then owned by the Hara family of Kanagawa Prefecture before coming into the possession of the national government. This work, along with the Tokyo National Museum’s Buddhist hells scroll (formerly from Anju-in Temple in Okayama Prefecture), is a masterpiece among paintings depicting the Six Realms.