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Ema (votive plaque)

Ema (votive plaque) with lion and King Udayana, 1639. Japan. Framed panel; ink and colors on wood. Asian Art Museum, The Avery Brundage Collection, B60D74

This large wooden plaque is an ema: a votive painting offered to a shrine or temple in fulfillment of a vow. In ancient times, it was customary for wealthy families to present horses to the kami, or native gods, along with prayers for honoring their requests. Painted ema, literally "horse pictures," later replaced expensive live animal donations.

This ema, or wooden votive plaque, features a mythical Chinese lion, or karashishi, and his caretaker King Udayana (Japanese: Utenno). These figures are associated with a Buddhist god Manjushri (Japanese: Monju), the bodhisattva of wisdom. The lion is Manjushri's mount, and Udayana one of his four attendants. The lion is one of several divine creatures to appear in Buddhist paintings.

An ink inscription tells us that this plaque was given as a religious offering in 1639. Most votive plaques are found at Shinto shrines, but given its Buddhist subject matter, is it possible that this one once belonged to a Buddhist temple. In fact, there are a number of other plaques showing Udayana with a lion associated with Kofukuji, a major Buddhist temple located in Nara. But Kofukuji also has close ties with a neighboring Shinto shrine, Kasuga Taisha, and this type of ema, with its Shinto form and Buddhist subject matter, is undoubtedly the product of cross-fertilization between these two major religious traditions.

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