Mount Mikasa and Mount Kasuga appear in the background; a deer in a particularly large scale—the messenger of the Kasuga deity—rides upon clouds emerging from the mist and haze that cloaks the sacred landscape surrounding Kasuga Shrine. Outlined in red, a golden disk rising above Mount Kasuga represents the sun. The mist parts at the foreground of the painting to reveal a torii, a gate marking or adorning the sacred approach into the precincts of a shrine. The path into the precincts extends upwards from it. A herd of deer can be seen in the Kasuga fields on either side of the path.
Five branches extend from the sacred tree (J. sakaki) mounted upon the deer’s saddle, the branches of which are adorned with wisteria and white streamers (J. shide) marking its divinity. Five buddhas and bodhisattvas stand at the ends of the branches. Facing these deities, from the right, we see Monju Bosatsu (Skt. Mañjuśrī), Shaka Nyorai (Skt. Śākyamuni), Yakushi Nyorai (Skt. Bhaiṣajyaguru), Jizō Bosatsu (Skt. Kṣitigarbha), and Jūichimen Kannon (Skt. Ekādaśamukha). These are the honji suijaku forms of the Shintō deities Wakamiya, Ichi no miya, Ni no miya, San no miya, and Shi no miya respectively.
These deities are painted in gold. They are unified within the large mandorla-like golden disk that symbolizes the deities reflected in the mirror (yorishiro) hanging from the sacred tree; this mirror is one of many material abodes where formless deities reside.
This genre of painting, referred to as a “Kasuga Deer Mandala,” is a type that features the sacred deer of Kasuga in its center. It reflects the belief that in the second year of Jingo Keiun (768), Kasuga Myōjin rode from Kashima, Hitachi, to Mount Mikasa, mounted upon a white deer.
There are over thirty known examples of Kasuga Deer Mandala are still extant. Among these, this painting features one of the more naturalistic depictions of a deer. The fur was drawn with delicate and detailed brushwork; the sacred creature’s body has a sense of dimensionality, and the beautiful expression of its horns conjure their materiality. Furthermore, classical painting techniques have been used to create it, including urahaku, where gold leaf is applied from the reverse side of a silk gauze screen. This is used for the radiant disk of light around the buddhas. The technique of urazaishiki, where pigments are applied from the back, is used to articulate the fur of the deity. This painting is dated to late in the Kamakura period (1181–1333) on the basis of the use of these techniques. It is significant as the oldest known Kasuga Deer Mandala.