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Joint conference

The Materiality of the Sacred in Medieval Japan and Europe:
Buddhism, Shinto, Christianity


February 29 - March 2, 2016

 Karl Jaspers Centre, Voßstraße 2, Bldg. 4400, Heidelberg

Organized by projects MC 3.1 “Economies of the Sacred” and Prof. Abe Yasuro (Nagoya Universities)


The Image and Materiality of the Sacred

– Objects and Spaces of Religious Production in Japan and Europe –

Abe Yasurō (Nagoya University)


The aim of all religions, be they folk religions or universal ones, is to strive for a “sacred” that separates from and transcends the material and physical aspects of reality. In practice, it is a constant endeavor of both aspiring to and questioning the state of sacredness. However, the sacredness is necessarily rooted in the materiality; as such it knows no other way to manifest itself rather than through a medium of diverse source materials and techniques of their manufacturing and assemblage. Put otherwise, since the “sacred” is constantly grounded in some kind of objects and techniques, it could also be [poetically] rendered as “a mysterious power” which manifests as if bursting out from within. What comes to mind here is a stereotypical legend according to which even the astonishing skills of master craftsmen that come with large-scale religious production only reach their completion thanks to the divine help, such as the work of angels. This suggests that the so-called “mystical operation” behind the production of outstanding religious art is constantly supported by the workings of a techné thus bringing to the fore a kind of sacredness that always dwells on the material. To explore the hidden mechanisms behind this phenomenon is of major interest not only to the art history, but to the humanities in general.
Let us inquire what kind of materials and materiality is at the base of the religious art production, through a concrete case of the statues of Buddhist divinities. Firstly, depending on the material (be it stone, wood, or clay), the production methods of these statues differed. Metals such as iron, copper, or bronze, required advanced manufacturing techniques such as casting. Due to the progress of these technologies, the appearance of the religious objects also continued to change. Whether they were made from basic materials, or further modified with colours, gilt, lacquer, or golden leaves, different statues display different looks. There may have been cases in which it is the material itself that was considered sacred; nevertheless, certain techniques were required to make the statues materialize and “come to life.” Another important point is that these statues are not made purely of their outward surface: the iconic objects attain their meaning by their internal structure invisible from the outside and the symbolic typology of objects interred inside, such as inscriptions, texts and signs as well as discursive theories corresponding to the statues themselves and circulating in the society. Such iconic objects must be perceived in their entirety: for example, including the background mandorla or pedestal integral to the statue’s appearance, the accessories adorning them, portable cabinets enshrining them, the temple halls where such statues are displayed, as well as the temple’s overall architectural space and the relationship between its larger and smaller buildings. The three-dimensional interplay between the icons’ carving and the doors [of a cabinet or a space] adorning its sides, wall paintings and ornaments placed nearby may also be included. Moreover, on top of this synthesis, the foundational myths narrated by the temple’s engi enwrapping such iconic statues like an aura, the disposition and religious experience of temple parishioners who solicit and sponsor the production of icons transform them into the sacred objects that transcend the simple forms of materiality.
Oftentimes, it is the religious statue itself that prompts miracles; this may become codified as a certain sign, even during its production. A myth of such miracle may become attached to the similar statues and in turn prompt a repetition of similar miracles, and it is not rare, that subsequently, the very technique of the statue’s production or a specific material associated with it would become mythologized and strongly codified as sacred or divine. At other times, an old damaged statue would be stored inside a newly produced one, thus giving an increased sacred power to its successor.
In Japan, a rich variety of the medieval iconic objects have been transmitted as religious heritage. Among them are also examples that provided vital ideas to the new forms of production. One could say that such objects are a cultural product and media that, on the one hand, transported the teachings of Buddhism from the early times, and on the other hand, was received in every strata of Japanese society, from the elites and royalty to the most popular circles. These complex [iconic] images are always supported by a dynamic materiality; their production follows each ebb and flow of such movement.
Moreover, it should be possible to compare such undertakings [and find similar conceptual junctures] to the splendid works of Christian art in medieval Europe. In addition to early pagan and indigenous religions, the Christian world of medieval Europe was built around the concept of proselytization. In some ways, the medieval societies were produced by the movements of pilgrims and worship that centered on the “sacred objects,” starting from the relics of Christ and including a countless number of relics of saints. Such relics were stored in reliquaries ornamented with design and adorned by gold and jewels. In addition, ritual spaces were shaped through the iconic images visualizing the lives of saints and their miracles, and grand cathedrals, churches, monasteries, and chapels were constructed. Such spaces were overflowing with voices and legends proclaiming miracles and proselytizing the Christian teachings; the revelations happening during church celebrations and ritual processions further enlivened the power of the religious icons and their surrounding spaces. There, the materiality of the “sacred objects” was brought to its peak.
We finally begin to assess the various aspects of expression – the production of sacredness mediated by its materiality, as so vividly demonstrated by the medieval art of Europe and Japan. No doubt, many examples will be introduced, and many engrossing questions will be raised, drawing on the research results from a variety of disciplines. It is through a sustained pursuit of such endeavors that the new terrains constantly open up in the studies of the humanity. It is precisely such hope that I hold for this symposium.

(tr. by Maria Römer and Anna Andreeva)






Monday, February 29



16: 00–17: 30             Group visit of the Academy Project by Prof. Lotar Ledderose

Hauptstrasse 113, Heidelberg

“Buddhist Stone Inscriptions in China”




18: 00             Keynote lecture I: Medieval Japan/キーノート講演: 中世日本


Prof. ABE Yasurō (Japanese Religions, Nagoya University)



“The Materiality of the Sacred in Medieval Japan: Statues, Myths, and Religious Space Surrounding the Nyorai Buddha of Zenkōji” (in Japanese)




                                   Tuesday, March 1



9: 30 am–9: 45am                  Opening remarks and technical announcements

by the local organizers

                                               Prof. Melanie Trede and Dr. Anna Andreeva


CHAIR: Dr. Michael HOFF (European Art History, Heidelberg)

9: 45am                      Presentation 1/発表1


Prof. KIMATA Motokazu (Western Medieval Art History, Nagoya University)

木俣元一教授 (中世西洋美術史、名古屋大学)



“The Programme of Display at the Chartres Cathedral: Relics, Eucharist, Stained Glass” (in English)



10: 45 am–11:00am               Short coffee break/短いコーヒー休憩

11: 00am        Presentation 2/発表2


Ms. KATSUTANI Yuko (University of Strasbourg)

勝谷祐子 (西洋中世キリスト教美術史、ストラスブール大学)



“A Study of the Wall Paintings in the Lower Chapel of the Collégiale de Saint-Bonnet-le-Château––Drawing Comparisons with Italian Paintings” (in English)


12: 00 am       Presentation 3/発表3


Ms. YURIKUSA Mariko (Nagoya University)




“The Visual Experiences of the Spectator in the monastery of San Giovanni Evangelista in Parma” (in English)



13: 00 – 14.30                        Lunch break/お昼休憩


Chair: Jörg QUENZER (Japanese Studies, Hamburg)

14: 30             Presentation 4/発表4


Prof. Claire-Akiko BRISSET (Japanese Cultural History, Paris Diderot University)



“About the Eye-Opening Ceremony: Between the Medium and the Icon in Japan” (in English)


15: 30pm–16: 00pm               Coffee break/コーヒー休憩

16:00pm–17:00pm                 Presentation 5/発表5

Dr. ABE Mika 阿部美香 (Showa Women’s University)



“The Materiality of the Kami (Local Deities) and Buddhas of the Hot Springs––Focusing on the Icon of Sōtō Gongen” (in Japanese)


17: 00 – 17: 30           Discussion of the day


                                   Wednesday, March 2




CHAIR: Anna ANDREEVA (Japanese Religions, Heidelberg)


9: 30 am         Presentation 7/発表7


(talk + discussion 1 hour each, approx. 45min+15 min, or 40min+20min/



Prof. ABE Yasurō (Japanese Religions and Literature, Nagoya University)



“The Worship of Sacred Objects and Their Forms, Spaces, and Legends in Medieval Japan–– The Relics Inside Shōtoku Taishi’s Hand and the Icons of ‘Praising-Buddha Prince’” (in Japanese)



10: 30 am–10: 45am              Short coffee break/短いコーヒー休憩

10: 45am                    Presentation 8/発表8


Prof. CHIKAMOTO Kensuke近本謙介 (Japanese Medieval Literature, Tsukuba University)





The Sacred Relics Surrounding Prince Shōtoku and Their Multilayered Development––

The Materiality of Objects and Records Narrating the Future


11: 45 am       Presentation 9/発表9


Dr. Anna ANDREEVA (Japanese Religions, Heidelberg)



“The Bodies of Women, the Letters of Men: Ritual, Gender, and Medicine in Sansei Ruijūshō (Encyclopaedia of Childbirth, ca. 1318)” (in English)




12: 45 – 14: 00                       Lunch break/お昼休憩





CHAIR: Claire-Akiko Brisset (Japanese Cultural History, Paris Diderot)

14: 00             Presentation 10/発表10


Prof. Jörg QUENZER (Japanese Studies, Hamburg)



“Mediating between text and physical object: Paratexts in Japanese manuscript culture” (English)


15: 00–15: 30             Coffee break/コーヒー休憩

15: 30             Presentation 11/発表11

Prof. Melanie TREDE (Japanese Art History, Heidelberg University)



“Colophons and other Framing Devices in Hachiman engi scrolls of medieval Japan” (in English)


16: 30–17: 00             Final discussion/最終論議

                        chaired by ABE Yasurō (Nagoya) and Anna ANDREEVA (Heidelberg)



17: 00  Keynote Lecture II: Medieval Europe第二基調講演中世ヨーロッパ


CHAIR: ABE Yasurō (Nagoya)


Prof. AKIYAMA Akira (Western Art History, Tokyo University)




“On the Relic and Iconic Character of the Sacred Objects – A Comparative Art History Perspective” (in Japanese)