The Snake General, One of the Twelve Divine Generals


The Snake General, One of the Twelve Divine Generals

Sculpture / Kamakura

Kamakura period, 13th century

Painted wood with gold and crystal (eyes)



Important Cultural Property

The Twelve Heavenly Generals are a group of deities charged with protecting the Buddha Yakushi, or Bhaisajyaguru in Sanskirt. This statue depicts Shishin, or the Snake General, so named after one of the twelve signs of the Chinese Zodiac. This statue was carved from the wood of a cypress tree, with color then applied to the entire surface. He wears armor and stands with shoulders square and eyes glaring diagonally downwards. A sense of physical power and muscular tension is conveyed by the sinuous body, the arms bent at the elbow, and a right leg that points outward. The disheveled hair also creates a striking impression, as does the coiled snake on the top of the head. The body movements convey a sense of spatial depth. This, together with the realistic expressions and the sharp, refined shape, is a characteristic feature of statuary that emerged from the end of the 12th century, as epitomized by the works carved by Unkei, a famous Japanese sculptor. This statue seems to herald the start of a new era. The still-vivid colors provide a further highlight alongside the dynamic motion.
This work was originally from a set of 12 Heavenly Generals. The other 11 statues are also still with us today. Like this example, they also wear depictions of creatures from the Chinese Zodiac on their heads. Tokyo National Museum is home to five of these statues. The number of generals corresponds to the 12 vows made by the Buddha Yakushi to save all sentient beings. Furthermore, it was custom in East Asia since ancient times to divide time or directions up into 12 units and then allocate a different animal to each one. The Chinese Zodiac is still familiar to many people today. The signs of the Chinese Zodiac were also assigned to the guardians of the Buddha Yakushi. In a sense, this symbolizes how the 12 generals continue to keep a close watch over all directions at all times.

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