Earlier this year I was commissioned to do a kakejiku — a Japanese hanging wall scroll — of Tenjin-sama, the Shinto kami (god) of scholarship. I did a little post on him back then, but I haven’t been able to show the work because these kind of scrolls take a long time to frame (over a month), and I didn’t want to upload any images until the owner had received the finished piece. The scroll is long — taller than I am — and the image itself is about 4 feet high. These kind of scrolls go in an alcove called a tokonoma, which is found in Japanese-style rooms with tatami mat floors. Kakejiku are often changed with the seasons, so families that can afford it often have many different ones that they can rotate in and out depending on the time of year.
Tenjin-sama was an interesting project for me to do. There are lots of symbols and things to take into consideration in this kind of artwork, so I had to do a lot of research before putting my brush to (a very very large piece of) paper. You can read more about him on his Wikipedia page, but the long and short of it is that a nobleman and poet named Sugawara no Michizane fell out of favor with the emperor and was exiled to far-away Kyushu. He died while still in exile, and it is said that his spirit turned into a vengeful ghost, or an onryo. Immediately after his death, the capital was struck by a number of disasters, and the court magicians and priests ascribed the storms and fires to the angry ghost of Sugawara. In order to placate his spirit, they enshrined him as a god, calling him Tenjin. He was ranked very high as a god and his shrine was supported directly by the government, so he became quite popular. Tenjin was worshipped first as a sky deity and bringer of disasters, but eventually this gave way to his status as a scholar and a poet during life, and he became a popular kami of education and scholarship. He is prayed to by parents and students during exam periods and so on.
The trees in the painting behind him are pine, bamboo, and plum. Pine and bamboo have auspicious meanings attached to them, and are common motifs in scrolls, while the plum was Sugawara’s favorite flower. His shrines are commonly decorated with plum trees, and there is a famous poem he wrote in exile in which he laments his favorite plum tree which he had to leave behind in the capital.
Obviously the picture was too large to scan, so I had to stitch a few digital photos together to make this composite. As a result, the color isn’t perfect, but I think it comes close and can give you a good idea of what the finished, full size piece looks like.