Eleven-Headed Kannon (Ekadaśamukha)

Organization control number
Cultural property designation
National Treasure
Era century
Heian period, 12th century
Item shape
Hanging scroll; ink and colors on silk
H 169.0, W 90.0
Nara National Museum
This painting depicts an Eleven-Headed Kannon (Skt. Ekādaśamukha Avalokiteśvara) facing towards the viewer's left. The deity's right hand, held at waist level with a rosary around the wrist, is in the hand gesture (Skt. mudrā) symbolizing the fulfilling of desires (J. yogan'in); the left holds a vase containing a red lotus flower. The eleven heads atop the image include three with faces like those of bodhisattvas, three with angry expressions, three with fangs protruding upwards, one laughing face, and on the very top, the face of a buddha. The iconography is based on the form of the Eleven-Headed Kannon discussed in the Heart Sutra of the Divine Incantation of the Eleven Heads (J. Jūichimen shinju shingyō), translated into Chinese by the priest Xuanzang (J. Genjō, 602-664) during the Tang dynasty (618-907). Unlike esoteric iconic depictions, in which the image faces directly forward, Kannon here is turned slightly diagonally suggesting the artist's attempt to create a more naturalistic space. Kannon is not portrayed in formal meditation posture but with his right foot relaxed. This stylized pose, as well as the ornate details of the large floral canopy and the aureole that resembles openwork carving, make this painted image appear to be a rendition of an actual Buddhist sculpture. The body of the image is painted in a light pink hue with a dark cinnabar outline creating a soft, rounded effect. Delicate cut gold leaf (J. kirikane), overlaid on the ground patterns and the main motifs, adorn the intricate layers of his robe. Decorating the dais and canopy are designs created in cut gold leaf and gradations of silver arranged like bamboo leaves (J. sasa rindō). This motif of bamboo leaves and that of the chrysanthemum rings (J. kikka danmon) in cut gold leaf are thought to have been introduced from Song dynasty (960-1279) China. Painted silver, with the lotus stem visible within, the vase that Kannon holds resembles Song glassware. Sumptuous and splendid, these elements typify the gorgeous forms characteristic of Buddhist painting of the Heian period (794-1185). This work was passed down until modern times in Hokki-ji Temple. Located nearby is Hōryū-ji Temple, which owns fragments of Heian period Buddhist paintings that display a similar pattern of strong gradation of pigments. This raises the possibility that the Eleven-Headed Kannon took its inspiration from classical paintings like those on the walls of Hōryū-ji's Golden Hall.

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