Important Cultural Property“The Woman with a Birthmark” from Diseases and Deformities

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  • Color on paper
  • 25.9×45.3 cm
  • Heian to Kamakura period, 12th century
  • Kyushu National Museum
  • A87

These paintings are segments of a handscroll that depicts diseases, deformities, and how they were treated. They feature a beggar monk who is ridiculed for his short stature, a hunchbacked beggar monk who walks looking down, a man who excretes from his mouth because he does not have an anus, and a woman deploring the birthmark on her face.

Diseases and Deformities was originally a whole scroll owned by the Sekido family in Nagoya. It comprised fifteen sections that have since been separated. Nine of these sections belong to a single scroll segment that has been designated a National Treasure, and currently belongs to Kyoto National Museum. The remaining six have been separated into scroll segments, four of which are described here, while the remaining two belong to private collections.

A side-by-side comparison of these paintings would suggest that they were painted by multiple artists. Nevertheless, each subject is captured precisely with free and meandering lines that skillfully depict their emotions in just a few brushstrokes. This superb style is a rare match to that of Tokiwa Mitsunaga (exact dates unknown), a twelfth-century court painter who is known for his painting of the courtier Ban Dainagon, itself a National Treasure currently in the collection of the Idemitsu Museum of Art in Tokyo.

These scroll segments also contain very similar depictions of facial expressions, clothing designs, and plants as found in the Hell Scroll (Jigoku-zōshi) and the Stories of Hungry Ghosts (Gaki-zōshi). These two works belong to a series of rokudō-e paintings portraying the Buddhist Six Realms of Rebirth (rokudō) created for Retired Emperor Goshirakawa (1127–92) in the late twelfth century. The stylistic similarities in Diseases suggests it may have been the part of this series covering the human realm.

Research in recent years has identified Prajnaruchi’s translation of the Sutra for the Remembrance of the True Law (Shōbōnenjo-kyō) as the basis for Diseases, further supporting the theory that it was created as a rokudō-e. Where other rokudō-e draw their subjects strictly from Buddhist scriptures, however, this work addresses issues outside of just the diseases and deformities described in the scriptures. This is done by depicting not just the sick, but also highlighting the contrast between them and the appearances of the healthy onlookers, as well as shedding light on the ridicule they face from those around them. Researchers believe that these aspects of the work can be attributed to Retired Emperor Goshirakawa, who had designed and planned it.

Though but a part of the entire work, these scroll segments sufficiently embody the style of Tokiwa Mitsunaga, thereby showing us the trends in late-twelfth-century scroll paintings of the imperial court. In that sense, these masterpieces are representative not just of Buddhist painting, but of art in the late Heian period in general.