National TreasureHell Scroll

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  • 1 handscroll
  • Color on paper
  • height 26.5cm length454.7cm
  • Heian period, 12th century
  • Nara National Museum
  • 644

This scroll consists of seven painted scenes, six of which are accompanied by text. The scenes were based on descriptions of the sixteen lesser hells given in Kisekyô (literally, "Sutra of the World Arising"), which was translated into Chinese by Jnanagupta (d. 600). According to the sutra, around the eight greater hells lie sixteen lesser hells-the hells of "The Black Sand Cloud," "Excrement," "The Five Prongs," "Starvation," "Searing Thirst," "Pus and Blood," "The Single Bronze Cauldron," "Many Bronze Cauldrons," "The Iron Mortar," "Measures," "The Flaming Cock," "The River of Ashes," "The Grinder," "Sword Leaves," "Foxes and Wolves," and "Freezing Ice." 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 Nara set.

Each section of the text begins with the phrase, "There is yet another hell," to which is added a description based on Kisekyô, in which the cause for the sinners' fall into a particular hell is recorded. According to one view, however, the seventh scene, rather than depicting the "Hell of Foxes and Wolves" (J. Korô jigoku) described in Kisekyô, represents the "Hell of Wolves and Foxes" (J. Rô yakan nairi) that appears in Dairôtankyô ("Great Sutra of the World Arising").

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 the Chûson-ji Temple sutras, while that of the "Hell of the Flaming Cock" shows the influence of Chinese paintings of the Song dynasty (960-1279). This handscroll has the most delicate expression of all the extant "Illustrated Scrolls of the Six Paths of Rebirth" (J. rokudô emaki), a category that includes other Hell Scrolls, the Scrolls of the Hells for Buddhist Novices (J. Shamon jigoku zôshi), the Hungry Ghosts Scroll (J. Gaki zôshi), Extermination of Evil (J. Hekijae), and the Scroll of Diseases and Deformities (J. Yamai no sôshi).

It is highly probable that these Illustrated Scrolls of the Six Paths of Rebirth correspond to the "Paintings of the Six Paths" (J. rokudô-e) mentioned in textual sources, which were commissioned by Emperor Goshirakawa (1127-92, r. 1155-58) and stored originally in Rengeô-in Temple (Sanjûsangendô).

This handscroll was preserved in Daishô-in Temple in Tokyo until the Meiji period (1868-1912) and then owned by the Hara family of Kanagawa before coming into the possession of the national government. This work, along with the Tokyo National Museum's Hell Scroll (formerly from Anjû-in Temple in Okayama Prefecture), is a masterpiece among paintings depicting the Six Paths of Rebirth.