Japanese Religious Art

Rare, Large Shinto or Yamabushi Pilgrim Mask of the Beshimi Type

Inv. Nr. #19.003
Date  Edo period, circa 18th Century
Material Wood, lacquer, rock crystal, paper and ink
Dimensions 40,8 x 26 x 16 cm

Rare, large ceremonial pilgrim or hanging mask of the beshimi type. Beshimi is some sort of Tengu who protects others from evil spirits and demons. His name refers to his firmly shut mouth, that can be read as a sign of his inner determination. The mask is finely carved with a faithful facial expression. Over his chunky nose, piercing eyes are testing his obsever and his intentions. They are inlayed in the unique Japanese manner called gyokugan (lit. crystal eyes). These are eyes made of rock crystal with layers of painted paper or silk for the pupils, which were inserted from the back into the head of the mask in order to produce a fantastic, realistic appearance.

 

Clues about the function of this mask gives us a woodblock print by Utagawa Hiroshige from his series 'The Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō' from 1832/1833. In the 12th sheet of his series, Hiroshige is depicting travelers who are approaching the town of Numazu near Mt. Fuji, just as the full moon arises at the horizon. One of the travelers, however, is a pilgrim, possibly journeying to (or returning from) Kompira Shrine on Shikoku Island. The pilgrim is dressed in white and carrying a portable shrine on his back that has been adorned with a large Tengu mask, believed to offer talismanic protection. The Kompira shrine is dedicated to the deity Omono-nushi-no-Mikoto, a patron saint of seafarers, and located high atop Mt. Kotohira. Hence it was also a popular destination of the so called Yamabushi, wandering priests who venerate mountains and their spirits and undertake severe ascetic practices in order to become Buddha in this very life. Carrying a large mask of a Tengu, in the popular imagination the Yamabushi themself became associated  with these mythical birdlike creatures that live deep in mountain forests.

 

This mask too may has once undergone its pilgrimage with a Yamabushi to Kompira or another shrine, being charged with magical blessings and was then hung in a shrine or Buddhist temple for protection. Compared to other extant large beshimi hanging or offering masks, like such in the Freer | Sackler Galleries, this one is an extraordinarily fine example with unusual crystal eyes and fearful expression. Since many Shinto items are usually burned within the ritual context of offerings, this mask is an extreme rare example.