This six-panel folding screen, the only extant screen painting dating from the Heian period (794-1185), depicts a “Chinese-style” (J., karae) genre scene. The set came from the Shingon sect temple of Tô-ji (Kyôô Gokoku-ji) in Kyoto. Originally, however, it is thought that the screen was made for use as a furnishing inside the imperial palace or an aristocratic household.
The six panels are individually bordered, but they form a single continuous scene of a leisurely spring day. The human figures, the immediate surroundings, and the trees and blossoming wisteria vines in the foreground are painted in a relatively large scale. Gently rolling hills and wide expanses of water cover the middle ground, and distant mountains rise above all. The central focus of this tranquil composition is in the lower half of the two central panels, where an aged hermit sits inside a rustic hut with paper and brush in hand, perhaps about to jot down a verse. On the right, a young nobleman emerges from the mountains to pay him a visit. This highly evocative scenario is made even more charming by the tiny songbirds portrayed in the garden and on the roof of the hermitage. Figures on horseback in the first and sixth panels, seemingly visitors on their way home, give a sense of narrative continuity. According to one explanation, the hermetic scholar is none other than the famous Chinese poet Bo Juyi (J., Haku Kyoi or Haku Rakuten, 772-846) of the Tang dynasty (618-906), an extremely popular literary figure among Japanese aristocrats of the Heian period.
The technique of applying blue and green pigments to the peaks of mountains originates from a Chinese painting tradition known as “blue-green landscape” (Ch., qinglu shanshui, J., seiryoku sansui). In this painting, however, the lateral expansiveness of the mountains and the bright color palette suggest that Japanese tastes strongly influenced the style. In addition, the application of pigments is relatively thin, and the ink lines of the under drawings are incorporated into the finished composition. Layers of clouds in horizontal bands are rendered with indistinct edges, making them soft and ebullient and creating a sense of depth. Such stylistic features suggest that the screen was painted no later than the eleventh century.
At Tô-ji Temple, this landscape screen was used in esoteric ordinations for transmitting the Buddhist Dharma (J., denpô kanjô, Skt., abhiseka). Documentation of the use of landscape screens in such rituals does not appear until the end of the Heian period. The earliest such mention pertains to a ceremony of esoteric ordination for establishing karmic bonds with a buddha (J., kechien kanjôe) that took place in 1182 at Kannon-in, a sub-temple of the esoteric Buddhist temple of Ninna-ji in Kyoto. The use of this type of screen on such occasions spread subsequently to Daigo-ji and other Shingon temples. The screen would most frequently be placed behind the seat of the esoteric master (J., ajari) administering the ritual or the high-ranking figure receiving ordination.