Life of Prince Shotoku


Life of Prince Shotoku

Paintings / Nanbokucho

Nanbokuchō period, 14th century

Color on silk



Prince Shotoku was a political figure in ancient Japan. He created the Seventeen Article Constitution and developed a system for ranking officials into 12 grades. In doing so, he helped establish a centralized government based around the emperor. He also played a key role in spreading Buddhism throughout Japan by building temples like Shitennoji and Horyuji.

This work depicts his life and is comprised of three hanging scrolls. The first scroll shows 11 scenes of the Prince's life from age 16 to 21. The second scroll displays 13 scenes from age 22 to 29. The third scroll jumps forward 24 years after the Prince's death to depict the assassination of Soga no Iruka, an event that led to the Taika Reforms of 645. Because of this gap, scholars believe this work originally consisted of eight scrolls.

These scrolls depict a number of interesting episodes. There are too many to describe here, so we will introduce just one. Take a look towards the bottom of the second scroll. Prince Shotoku is seen riding a black horse. This tale took place when he was still in his twenties. The Prince was presented with horses from several countries and he recognized that one of them was a sacred horse. According to legend, when he mounted this steed, they both flew high into the sky and disappeared among the clouds. They crossed Mount Fuji and travelled through Japan's provinces for three days before returning. This scroll shows the Prince effortlessly guiding his horse over a snowcapped Mount Fuji.

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