Document Type



This study explores the lives and artistic works of aristocratic Zen nuns in Early Modern (1600-1868) Japan. Influenced by the Lotus Sutra, whose teachings and allegories permeated their lives, Buddhist nuns saw the creation of art as a pious, meritorious act. Art was an intimate part of their lives and worship, and together within their convents aristocratic Buddhist nuns played an important role in Japanese cultural history. Their artistic contributions were prayers for amassing karmic merit in the afterlife or were intended to assist temples in furthering the spread of Buddhism. The quality, quantity and variety of their visual expressions of faith eloquently testify to Buddhism’s ability to inspire artistic creativity among the devout. Art was not only a form of piety for Buddhist nuns, but sometimes involved sacrifice through ascetic practices. Traditions of self-mutilation carried out by religious women in pre-modern Japan were performed predominantly by those seeking to overcome their physical attachments and render themselves genderless when male priests hindered their pursuit of spiritual studies. The cultural breadth of the convents can be seen in various objects made from wood, clay, cloth, metal, paper, and pigments, and some even attest to religious fervor by incorporating the hair, skin and blood of the nuns who created them. The visual brilliance of these objects convinces us that the imperial convents are extraordinary cultural repositories that deserve further scholarship. This study underlines the importance of studying visual culture within broader socio-cultural contexts of ritual, gender relations and the negotiation of social status.


Art History

Thesis Comittee

Dr. Sean H. McPherson, Thesis Advisor

Dr. Andrés Montenegro Rosero, Committee Member

Prof. Jonathan Shirland, Committee Member

Copyright and Permissions

Original document was submitted as an Honors Program requirement. Copyright is held by the author.

Included in

History Commons