The journey begins

1 August, 2019

Thanks to a generous grant from the Sumitomo Foundation in Tokyo, a pair of early eighteenth century Japanese handscrolls will undergo a two-year project to conserve them.

The Chester Beatty’s illustrated scrolls entitled Account of the deeds of Zōga Shōnin (Zōga Shōnin gyōgōki emaki (CBL J 1130) present key episodes and miracles from the life of Zōga Shōnin (917-1003). A famous priest of Buddhism’s Tendai school, Zōga Shōnin was a pupil of Ryōgen, chief abbot of the Tendai sect in the tenth century, and credited with its revival. Combining alternating sections of kanbun text and paintings, the Chester Beatty scrolls reveal how Zōga became Ryōgen’s pupil, before rejecting his worldly living and leaving Mt. Hiei to live as a recluse. They include depictions of the eccentric behaviour for which Zōga is remembered, such as giving away his clothing to the poor and riding on an ox with a dried fish in place of a sword, as well as his spiritual powers as he overcomes a three-headed demon and achieves miracles from beyond the grave.

CBL J 1130.1 & 2 in their wooden storage box, before conservation.
A detail showing creasing and pigment loss across the scroll before conservation, CBL J 1130.1.
A detail showing creasing across the scroll before conservation CBL J 1130.1.

The Chester Beatty scrolls are one of only two sets of illustrated handscrolls known to exist of this subject. The other set is preserved in the collections of Tanzan Shrine in Tōnomine, Nara Prefecture. An inscription at the end of Scroll 2 confirms that these beautiful handscrolls were painted by Hōjuken Hōgan in 1711. The quality of the painting is very high, with considerable attention paid to details of clothing and expression, but sadly no further details of this artist are known.

As the biography of a notable priest and the miracles associated with him, these scrolls offer an insight into the importance of storytelling within Japanese Buddhism and are acutely in need of comprehensive conservation treatment due to their immense academic value, rarity, subject matter, and date.

The two scrolls measure over 11 meters each in length and are made up of several  different layers of Japanese hand-made paper with each scroll attached to a wooden roller at one end with an outer silk cover at the other. Due to their fragile nature and repeated handling, the paintings have become heavily creased, especially at the end of each scroll where they have been tightly rolled. Previous water damage has been crudely repaired prior to Beatty acquiring them. Over time, the traditional Japanese pigments have weakened and begun to crack and flake, so these will need to be consolidated and strengthened. In order to preserve the scrolls it will be necessary to remove the old paper linings, strengthen the creases and attach three new linings.

Restorient Conservators Andrew and Sydney unrolling the scrolls for examination on their arrival in the studio, CBL J 1130.1 & 2 .
A detail of Scene 19 (scroll 2), The appearance of Bishamontenof, showing creasing across the painting, CBL J 1130.1 & 2.

The extensive two-year programme of treatment will be carried out by the specialist conservators at Restorient in Leiden. Last month, I was delighted to have the opportunity to travel to Leiden to deliver the scrolls and meet with conservators Andrew Thompson and Sydney Thomson. Andrew and Sydney founded Restorient in 2005, which is based in the grounds of the Rijksmuseum Volkenkunde in the centre of Leiden. They specialise in the conservation of Asian art and their workshop is modelled on traditional Japanese restoration studios with much of the work carried out at low level benches on a Japanese tatami mat floor. The studio is equipped with a wide range of materials and tools sourced throughout Asia.

Andrew and Sydney in the studio at Restorient.
Jessica and Andrew assessing the two scrolls upon their arrival in the Restorient studio.

This is the fourth such project with Restorient to be sponsored by the Sumitomo Foundation and the conservation treatment will enable the Chester Beatty to exhibit these scrolls, facilitate their further research, and secure their preservation for future generations.

Andrew and Sydney have become part of the extended Chester Beatty family and we are very much looking forward to working with them as they undertake the meticulous conservation of the Zōga Shōnin scrolls. We look forward to posting further blogs as we track their progress.

Jessica Baldwin

Head of Collections & Conservation

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