National TreasureHell Scroll

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  • 紙本著色地獄草紙
  • 1 scroll
  • Color on silk
  • 26.9x249.3
  • Heian period/12th century
  • Tokyo National Museum
  • A-10942

The Buddhist concept of the Six Paths of Transmigration (J. rokudô) became popular at the end of the Heian period (794-1185) as the Heian court began to lose its power and social anxiety increased. The hells are one of the six realms to which a person is consigned after death as a result of his or her deeds during this life. The Hell Scroll (J. Jigoku zôshi) is an illustrated handscroll depicting the suffering of sinners who have fallen into this realm.

This scroll, which depicts four subsidiary hells within one of the Eight Greater Hells, was kept in the storehouse of Anjû-in Temple in Okayama Prefecture. It depicts murderers, thieves, adulterers, and so forth, who have fallen into the Hell of Cloud, Fire, and Mist. The naked men and women are in agony as they burn in an enormous fire. The writhing flames are vividly and effectively rendered with concise lines and black and vermilion tones. The painting probably caused its viewers to shudder with fear and foreboding, encouraging them to embrace the desire to be born into the Pure Land.

The text, a mixture of Chinese characters (J. kanji) and Japanese phonetic script (J. kana), is based on Chinese sutras written in Japanese style. It is thought that this scroll, together with the illustrated handscrolls of the Hungry Ghosts (J. Gaki zôshi) and the Extermination of Evil (J. Hekijae), is part of the Paintings of the Six Paths (J. Rokudôe) stored in the treasure house of Rengeô-in (commonly known as Sanjûsangendô) Temple, which was built by cloistered emperor Goshirakawa (1127-1192, r. 1155-1158).