height 208.0cm width 58.0cm
Nara period or Tang dynasty, 8th century
Nara National Museum
This masterpiece, known as the "Kajû-ji Embroidery," was named after Kajû-ji Temple in Kyoto, in which it was preserved. The work appears to depict the scene of Sakyamuni (J. Shaka) preaching the Lotus Sutra on Vulture Peak (Skt. Grdhra-kuta, J. Gijakutsusen or Ryôjusen) in Magadha, India. Sakyamuni, wearing a vermilion robe, is seated in the center on a lion throne beneath a jeweled tree and canopy, surrounded by bodhisattvas, his Ten Great Disciples, and lay people. Heavenly musicians and immortals riding on birds float above the clouds. This gives the viewer a glimpse of the august splendor of a Buddhist pure land towards which people of the time aspired towards in the afterlife.
White plain-weave silk (J. shiro hiraginu) forms the expansive ground of this embroidery. French knots (J. sagara-nui) are used for Sakyamuni's curls and pedestal, the jewelry and clothing of the bodhisattvas, and parts of the objects held by the Ten Disciples. The rest of the embroidery is executed in chain stitch (J. kusari-nui) with z-twist yarns, and the spaces between the sacred and human figures and other such areas are similarly filled with lozenge-shaped patterns of chain stitch. For this reason, the ground is visible only in small sections where the thread has worn away. Three-dimensionality difficult to obtain in painting is achieved here by the varying sizes of the French knots, the thickness of the chain stitch, and the way in which the stitches change direction according to subject. The work displays the artist's deep understanding of and proficiency in embroidery techniques.
Iconographic and stylistic similarities to the wall paintings at Dunhuang or Longmen in China or to those in the Golden Hall of Hôryû-ji Temple in Japan indicate that this piece was made in the early eighth century. While there is no firm conclusion as to whether it was produced in China or Japan, the use of the chain stitch across the entire surface and the fact that there are no early Japanese examples of French knotting suggest that it was embroidered in Tang China.
The current panel mounting is a result of relatively recent conservation, although this embroidery is believed have originally hung as an auspicious decoration on the wall of a Buddhist hall. Textual sources tell us that many such works were produced in the eighth century. While the vast majority have been lost, the Sakyamuni Preaching remains as an invaluable relic of its time.