Daibutsu, Kamakura

Daibutsu, Kamakura
Daibutsu in Kamakura, June 2010. There were thousands of school kids visiting that day. It was still great fun.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Atsuhime's palanquin in Washington D.C.

Princess Atsu's (Atsuhime) palanquin will be displayed at the Sackler Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. Palanquins were used as transportation during the Tokugawa period of Japanese history, which ended in 1868. High-ranking Japanese nobility sat in the fancy compartments, and as many as six bearers carried it through the streets.

The palanquin was purchased in 1984 by curator Ann Yonemura. Yonemura knew that the palanquin belonged to a high-ranking noblewoman, since only the elite were permitted such rich transportation. But it wasn’t until this year, as reported in the January issue of Smithsonian magazine, that she figured out who the palanquin was made for.

A document found in the Japanese National Archives listed the items that had been made for the 1856 marriage between shogun Tokugawa Iesada and Princess Atsuhime. She would have sat in it, and six bearers would have carried her through the streets from her parents’ home to her new husband’s.

But Atsuhume was more than just a shogun’s third wife. Her husband died two years after their marriage, making her a widow at 23. Undaunted, Atsuhime renamed herself Tenshoin. When the Tokugawa clan resigned the shogunate and imperial rule resumed, Princess Atsuhime remained a force in politics, advancing her family’s position. Her life spanned the birth of a modern, powerful Japan. Atsuhime’s fascinating story is the subject of a 50-episode drama, currently airing on the Japanese public TV network NHK.

Below is description of the upcoming exhibition at the Sackler Gallery of Art from the museum website:

March 21–April 9, 2009
Freer Gallery of Art
In 1856 Princess Atsuhime married Tokugawa Iesada (1824–58), the thirteenth shogun of the Tokugawa family that ruled Japan from 1603 to 1867. The princess rode in this Japanese ceremonial palanquin, carried by six bearers, as part of her wedding procession. Its fifteen-foot beam and wood exterior are coated in black lacquer and lavishly decorated in gold using the maki-e technique. Gold and silver powders were applied to the lacquer to create designs, such as the circular family crests that identify the prestigious families of the bride and groom. Decorated like a miniature palace room, the interior space was a private area intended primarily for the bride's appreciation. Paintings on gold-leafed paper embellish the interior walls. Three paintings depict scenes from the Japanese literary classic The Tale of Genji, written in the eleventh century by Murasaki Shikibu, a noblewoman like the bride herself.

The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery acquired this palanquin in 1985, but the identity of the bride for whom it was created remained unknown. Princess Atsuhime's connection to the palanquin was not discovered until this year, when Shin'ichi Saito, curator at the Tokyo Metropolitan Edo-Tokyo Museum, completed extensive research of historical documents in the Japanese National Archives. The first recent international showing of the palanquin will be at the Tokyo Metropolitan Edo-Tokyo Museum (December 16–February 1, 2009). The palanquin then returns to the Sackler Gallery in the spring of 2009 and will be on view during the National Cherry Blossom Festival (March 28–April 12, 2009).

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