Embroidered Buddhist paintings first gained favor in the thirteenth century in Japan. Embroidery was the domain of women, and the large scroll shown here is signed by a woman, Joen, who was associated with the Kumano Sanzan Shrines, the collective name for three Shinto shrines in the Kumano district of Wakayama Prefecture, one of the most visited pilgrimage sites in Japan.
A mountainous area overlooking the sea, Kumano was considered the abode of the gods. In the Heian period, it became associated with the Pure Land of Amida Buddha. Henceforth, the Shinto gods were seen as localized manifestations of buddhas and bodhisattvas. The embroiderer, Joen, invokes the name of Amida Buddha (Namu Amidabutsu) who appears here in the headdress of Nyorin Kannon, a six-armed manifestation of the bodhisattva Kannon. The names of two devotees, both deceased, are given as Doko Shinshi and Myoko Shinnyo. Nyorin Kannon sits on a mountaintop representing his own island paradise, Mount Fudaraka. At Kumano, he is worshiped as the Buddhist origin of Chigo no miya, one of the five Oji shrines. Nyorin Hall (Nyorindo) was one of the buildings at the Kumano Nachi Shrine, at the site of the 130-meter waterfall.
The text at the bottom is embroidered in alternating colors in the style initiated in Buddhist sutras in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. For a rare, thirteenth-century embroidered sutra, see John Rosenfield and Shujiro Shimada, Traditions of Japanese Art: Selections from the Kimiko and John Powers Collection (Cambridge, MA: Fogg Art Museum, 1970), cat. no. 47. For the Kumano shrines, see D. Max Moerman, Localizing Paradise, Harvard East Asian Monographs 235 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, distributed by Harvard University Press, 2005).
Several other dated, late-seventeenth-century embroidered Buddhist paintings are known, but they are in Japanese temple collections (see Ito Shinji, Shubutsu [Embroidered buddhas], in Nihon no bijutsu [Arts of Japan] 470 [July 2005], plates 19-21).