Displaying Votive Paintings in Edo Japan

A review of Ema: Display Practices of Edo Period Votive Paintings, by Hilary Katherine Snow.

This dissertation by Hilary K. Snow examines the diversity of large-scale ema (votive paintings) and the practices of donation and display that attended them in the Edo period (1603-1868). Ema represent an understudied genre of Japanese painting, perhaps because they are most often understood in their votive context. Snow’s dissertation, which focuses on ema in the Kantō region in the latter half of the Edo period, views these objects as exemplars of the intermingling of the secular and the sacred in early modern Japan. Her study of ema through the context of display argues for a broader understanding of the role of these paintings in social exchange and popular culture.

The introduction lays out defining features of the genre, including the fundamental but important distinction in the Edo period between inexpensive small-format koema and the large-format paintings commissioned by donors from professional artists known as ōema, which comprise the principal objects of her study. Snow also presents the critical approaches and scholarly precedents that guide her work. She cites social art history and material culture studies as her primary methodological influences, as well as previous work on ema in folk studies. Particularly relevant is Igor Koptyoff’s notion of the “cultural biography” of objects, and she borrows this idea to lay out a major argument of the dissertation: that while ema may begin life as votive paintings, “the greater period of their biography is as objects of display” (p. 6).

Chapter 1, “Background and Development,” outlines the historical development of ema as religious and artistic objects, and surveys the relevant visual and textual record from medieval handscrolls to modern scholarship. In the absence of authoritative accounts of the earliest material forms or functions of painted ema, the standard interpretation holds that they are votive objects which originated in the Heian period (794-1185) practice of live horse donation, where wooden model horses and, later, small paintings of horses gradually replaced their living counterparts as donations that were more practical and less expensive to maintain. This narrative of development comes under scrutiny here, as Snow cites archeological evidence revealing very small ema, painted with a single horse, dating to the Asuka period (538-710). Also complicating this interpretation is a marked shift around the fifteenth century, when ema grew in size and the range of subject matter expanded beyond horses. Snow suggests this transformation may be due to an intertwined history of development between ema and the genre of hengaku, or plaques inscribed with the name of a religious institution or building and hung from the eaves of gates or doors.

Snow is careful to emphasize that while ema may have had origins in Shinto votive practices, even from an early stage of their development they held significance in Buddhist contexts as well. She points to the concepts of honji suijaku and of “common religion” in Japan, a term she borrows from Ian Reader and George Tanabe, insisting that ema as religious objects should be understand against the background of syncretic ties between Shinto and Buddhism.

This chapter also discusses the earliest appearances of ema in extant pictures, specifically in handscrolls of the late Heian and Kamakura periods (1185-1333), and speculates on their categories of use as ritual objects, amulets, or demarcations of sacred space. The chapter continues with a summary of the textual record since the Edo period, including both English- and Japanese-language scholarship of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and extending to modern scholarship from Yanagita Kunio to the considerable contributions of Iwai Hiromi in the postwar period, folk studies scholar Nishigai Kenji, and the publication since the 1980s of city ward exhibition catalogues documenting local and regional collections of ema.

Chapter 2, “Display and Dissemination,” delves into eighteenth- and nineteenth-century print sources to examine the characteristics of large-scale ema in the Edo period. Snow engages commentaries of various books to argue that as the Edo period progressed, ema increasingly “had a public life as social objects” (p. 36). She shows that the expansion of subject matter went hand-in-hand with concerns of display: ema’s function as votive offerings became less important than their role as decorative objects conveying statements about donors’ social status and artists’ graphic skill. Some of these publications also gave information about who painted ōema and occasionally even directories of where these artists could be found, but the data published in print sources seems to be slim. Donor information is likewise exceptional, rather than the norm. Yet ema appeared in a range of popular texts and visual sources: they can be found featured in stories by Ihara Saikaku (1642-1693), substituting for cartouches within single-sheet prints, or appearing as objects of appreciation in prints of beauties by ukiyo-e artists. Snow maintains that these manifestations of ema in popular literature and images, though fictional and created, show that “there was a rhetorical space for ema viewing as a leisure activity and that they were the objects of close observation” (p. 55). She links this new interest in ema, both in printed discourse and as public amusements, to the development of ema halls (emadō), which may have arisen in response to the growing size of large-format ema and the desire for their display. Ema halls became spaces of public entertainment and thus of social intermingling, particularly distinctive for their permanence in the urban landscape, unlike the fleeting spaces of display and public interaction offered by festivals or temporary exhibitions of temple treasures.

The latter half of the dissertation examines two highly important ema collections in the Kantō region. Chapter 3, “Horses, Warriors, Temples and Legends: Ema at Sensōji,” explores the diverse subject matter depicted in early modern ema as well as the relationship of subjects to donation practices. Kinryūsan Sensōji presents an especially interesting case study due to its patronage from both elite and commoner classes. Among the temple’s most well-known ema are its collection of horse ema, including four maki-e plaques with horses in raised gold that may have been donated by the second and third Tokugawa shoguns, Hidetada (r. 1605-23) and Iemitsu (r. 1623-51). Yet another seventeenth-century horse ema held greater sway in popular imagination: the famous horse painted by a Kanō school artist that looked so real it purportedly came to life, much to the dismay of nearby residents who found their crops razed the next morning. Snow analyzes convincingly the discourse around this painting, reading its multivalence as an attestation to the efficacy of ema (which could by analogy bring one’s wishes to life too) and as a claim to the powers of the brush, particularly of Kanō artists and perhaps of Kanō Motonobu (1476-1559), to whom the painting was often attributed in the literature.

The chapter goes on to demonstrate the wide variety of other subjects represented in Sensōji ema. Saitō Gesshin’s 1862 Bue hengaku shū (Collection of plaques in the Edo region) offers a selection of ema from this temple, giving a glimpse into contemporary views of ema connoisseurship at the end of the Edo period. Snow’s discussion of other subjects represented at Sensōji—including depictions of the temple’s grounds, Japanese and Chinese warriors, classical subjects, votive images of donors, and sumo wrestlers—highlight the expansion of themes, styles, and motivations for these large-scale painted boards and the growing interest in their public display across the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Chapter 4, “Patronage and Publicity: Ema at Naritasan,” considers the special case of Naritasan Shinshōji and interprets its ema as a visual representation of the temple’s connections with the city of Edo. Established in 940, the temple was revitalized in the early eighteenth century and enjoyed considerable patronage by members of the ruling elite. The chapter shows how patronage of the temple in the Edo period was encouraged by public viewings of the statue of Naritasan’s deity, Fudō Myōō (Sk. Acalanātha). Viewings were organized both in Narita and in Edo’s Fukagawa district, which was strategically convenient to the city’s various amusement districts and particularly proximate to the kabuki theater quarters. Through analysis of extant plays, ema, and donations by fan groups, Snow details the fascinating pattern of patronage and mutual benefit between Naritasan Shinshōji and the Ichikawa Danjūrō line of actors. She observes that a “blending of religious devotion and celebrity worship is seen throughout the Danjūrō lineage’s relationship to Naritasan” (p. 117) and furthered in the pilgrimage practices of devoted kabuki fans.

The history of close connection between Naritasan and Edo kabuki also raises the issue of the strong similarities between ema and kanban, or illustrated signboards used to advertise current plays. This chapter acknowledges the prominence of the Torii school of ukiyo-e artists in the production of both genres, and even gives examples of kanban recycled as ema. These overlapping roles, difficult to parse, nonetheless reinforce the notion that the later Edo period saw an increasing interest in the display of large paintings on boards as a form of public spectacle and entertainment. The chapter concludes with a discussion of other kinds of ema at Naritasan that likewise manifest active relationships of exchange between Narita and Edo, many of which were underpinned by commercial interests.

In her conclusion, Snow states, “Ema as a genre are usually defined by the first stage of their creation, as votive objects; however, for viewers who experience an ema after its donation, the state of display is more meaningful for understanding the object” (p. 144). By attending to this state of display across a broad range of painted and textual sources, her dissertation argues convincingly that ema participated in a kind of shared visual culture. Ema thus served as commodities, as objects of public discourse and exchange across networks. Her study moves toward a new understanding of this genre as not merely religious or artistic objects, but objects of commercial exchange and sociability as well. The dissertation’s close analysis of painted ema and published sources also indicates the significant intertextuality of printed and painted media and the sometimes surprising ways that information—artistic, cultural, social, political—was circulated in the later Edo period.

Jeannie M. Kenmotsu
History of Art
University of Pennsylvania

Primary Sources

Collection of ōema at Sensōji 浅草寺
Collection of ōema at Naritasan Shinshōji 成田山新勝寺
Hengaku kihan 扁額軌範
Itsukushima ema kagami 厳島絵馬鑑
Bue hengaku shū 武江扁額集

Dissertation Information

Stanford University. 2010. 266pp. Primary Advisor: Melinda Takeuchi.


Image: Ema of a Lion Dog, Edo Japanese, 1627, ink and color on wood, 27.3 x 36.5 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

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