Prince Shotoku (574-622) was a statesman and the second son of Emperor Yomei, who ruled in the 580s. Shotoku became regent for the empress Suiko (r. 593-628) at a young age. He introduced a Confucian system of government and was influential in promoting Buddhism. Around the thirteenth century, when popular evangelical Buddhism was in full flower, a cult of Shotoku Taishi (Crown Prince Shotoku) focused on the prince as a savior deity, an incarnation of one form of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. Votive images show him at different stages of his life, though the infant with hands placed together reciting his first prayer had the greatest appeal on the level of folk religion.
Illustrated biographies of Shotoku appeared in the Kamakura period and the imagery was distributed in manuscript from the late Muromachi to the mid-Edo period as so-called Nara ehon. The term was coined in the nineteenth century, but covers a wide spectrum of manuscript books of stories and novels with page-size illustrations that are often miniatures of the highest quality, as here. It is likely that the present volumes formed part of a set of an elite wedding gift.
Volume 1 begins with the early life of Shotoku, and illustrates his legendary birth beside a stable door (hence his early name, "Prince Stable-door" or Umayado), a legend that may be based on stories of the birth of Christ that circulated among Nestorian Christians in Tang China; and his first prayer at the age of two (illustrated here). Volume 2 shows Shotoku at age 14, with destruction of Buddhist images. In Volume 3, we see Shotoku at age 27 miraculously ascending into the sky mounted on a black horse (illustrated here); and receiving gifts of exotic birds and animals from Korea. Volume 7 shows the prince's funeral procession with its elaborate palanquin.