Tenjin (Sugawara no Michizane) with an ox

Historical period(s)
Muromachi period, 16th century
Ink and color on paper
H x W (image): 53.5 × 24.3 cm (21 1/16 × 9 9/16 in)
Credit Line
Gift of Charles Lang Freer
Freer Gallery of Art Collection
Accession Number
On View Location
Currently not on view

Hanging scroll

Japan, kakemono, man, Muromachi period (1333 - 1573)

Mr. Kawahara Osaka [1]

To 1908
Yamanaka & Company, to 1908 [2]

From 1908 to 1919
Charles Lang Freer (1854-1919), purchased from Yamanaka & Company in 1908 [3]

From 1920
Freer Gallery of Art, gift of Charles Lang Freer in 1920 [4]


[1] According to a note from the Original Kakemono List (see Curatorial Remark 3 in the object file). See also, F1904.344, Curatorial Remark 3, in the object record.

[2] See Original Kakemono List, pg. 161, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives. The majority of Charles Lang Freer’s purchases from Yamanaka & Company were made at its New York branch. Yamanaka & Company maintained branch offices, at various times, in Boston, Chicago, London, Peking, Shanghai, Osaka, Nara, and Kyoto. During the summer, the company also maintained seasonal locations in Newport, Bar Harbor, and Atlantic City.

[3] See note 2.

[4] The original deed of Charles Lang Freer's gift was signed in 1906. The collection was received in 1920 upon the completion of the Freer Gallery.

Previous Owner(s) and Custodian(s)

Mr. Kawahara
Charles Lang Freer 1854-1919
Yamanaka and Co. (C.L. Freer source) 1917-1965


The teachings and imagery of Zen Buddhism had a profound impact on Japanese religious beliefs and practice during the Kamakura and Muromachi periods. In this painting, the deified Japanese scholar and government official Sugawara no Michizane (845-903), known posthumously as Tenjin (heavenly deity), is represented walking beside an ox. The image alludes to the Zen Buddhist allegory of an ox and herdsman who illustrate the process of seeking and attaining enlightenment. Michizane was a court official whose unjust death in exile led to widespread worship of him to assuage his angry spirit. Elements of both Shinto and Buddhist belief coexisted in Tenjin worship. In his Zen Buddhist association, the literary accomplishments of Michizane as a poet in the Chinese language were praised; a fourteenth-century legend maintained that Tenjin had miraculously crossed the sea to China to study Zen Buddhism, and there had been taught by a Chinese master and presented with a Buddhist robe. Here he is dressed in a white Japanese court garment, holding a branch of blossoming plum, an emblem of his literary accomplishments.

The work exhibits an unusual combination of painting styles, suggesting that a painter trained in the meticulous style prevalent at the imperial court had also seen and copied new styles of ink painting that came from China to Zen Buddhist monasteries. The rendering of the ox in ink washes reflects knowledge of this Chinese style, while the figure is rendered with the precision and technical finesse of traditional Japanese court painting.

Collection Area(s)
Japanese Art
Web Resources
Google Cultural Institute
CC0 - Creative Commons (CC0 1.0)

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