In Pictures: The Divine Art of Japanese Shinto Gods

On display at Cleveland Museum of Art are 125 religiously revered works from the past 1300 years 

Kami deities have been worshipped for centuries in Japan, as part of the religion Shinto. At the Cleveland Museum of Art, an exhibition of visual art representing these gods has gone on display, marking the first exhibition devoted to Shinto art drawn from collections in the United States and Japan. Covering a broad historical period, the works on display are from the Heian period (794–1183) to the Edo period (1615–1868).

Seated Tenjin, 1261, wood with pigments; 0.8 x 1.1 m. Courtesy and photograph: Nara National Museum

Seated Tenjin, 1261, wood with pigments; 0.8 x 1.1 m. Courtesy and photograph: Nara National Museum

The exhibition includes around 125 artworks, which will be shown in two rotations due to the fragile nature of some of the objects on display.

Seated Tenjin, 1259, wood with color, 1 x 1 x 0.7 m. Courtesy: Yoki Tenman Jinja, Sakurai, Nara Prefecture; photograph: Nara National Museum

Seated Tenjin, 1259, wood with color, 1 x 1 x 0.7 m. Courtesy: Yoki Tenman Jinja, Sakurai, Nara Prefecture; photograph: Nara National Museum

Initially worshipped as a god of thunder, more recent myths and folklore from Shinto describe Tenjin as the god of academic studies and learning.

Female Kami, c.900, Japanese cypress with traces of color, 51 x 39 x 24 cm. Courtesy: The Museum Yamato Bunkakan

Boxes for the Kasuga Dragon Jewels, c.1300, lacquered wood with color; outer box: 43 x 52 x 45 cm. Courtesy and photograph: Nara National Museum.

The works on display include calligraphy, painting, sculpture, costume and the decorative arts.

Female Kami, c.900, Japanese cypress with traces of color, 51 x 39 x 24 cm. Courtesy: The Museum Yamato Bunkakan

Speaking to the Art Newspaper, Sinéad Vilbar, curator of Japanese art at the Cleveland Museum of Art said of the kami on display: ‘Some of them get petty, some of them get really cross, they are jealous of one another sometimes, and they get angry over things people do.’

Kasuga Mandala Reliquary Shrine, 1479, lacquered wood with color; 56 x 40 x 48 cm. Courtesy: Tokyo National Museum; photograph: TNM Image Archives

Kasuga Mandala Reliquary Shrine, 1479, lacquered wood with color; 56 x 40 x 48 cm. Courtesy: Tokyo National Museum; photograph: TNM Image Archives

‘One of the reasons for worshipping them is to keep them happy,’ Vilbar concluded.

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