Spoken Word as Figure: Visual iconographies of Nenbutsu in Medieval Japan

Jess Genevieve Bailey : History of Art

Mentor: Gregory Levine, History of Art

Enshrined in a Kyoto temple, the 13th century Portrait of the Holy Man K̄̄ūya sculpturally visualizes the verbal practice of nenbutsu or chanting the buddha’s name. Six small sculptural buddhas emerge on a wire extension from the icon’s mouth, embodying the chanted syllables. Icons are understood in Japanese Buddhism as animate objects, informing and guiding devotional practice. What does it mean to see the voice of an icon? Jess will examine this icon’s materiality, viewership, and history in order to negotiate the representation of sound in the visual culture of Pure Land Buddhism. She will travel to Japan studying relevant rituals and sculptures, while compiling a catalogue of visualized nenbutsu iconography since the Kamakura period. The broader implications of her research will center on the relationship between spoken word and visual signifiers.