Seated on a grass mat placed by the river’s edge, sheltered by an overhanging cliff with a torrent of water falling behind, a woman clad in chaste white sits in serene peace, her inner joy and contentment suggested only by the faint smile on her lips. This is Kannon, the One Who Observes the Sounds of the World, the Japanese name for Avalokitesvara, goddess of compassion and mercy who was worshipped throughout the Buddhist world, earliest as a masculine deity but ultimately, as here, as a feminine embodiment of matronly love and tenderness. Much of this transformation took place in China during the 14th century, and the present painting attributed to Isshi of the 15th century clearly developed from that stylistic foundation. Central to this iconography is the natural environment, a cave-like setting identified in Buddhist sutras as Potalaka which came to be equated with Mount Putuo, an island off the coast of Zhejiang province.
Originally attributed to ShokeI—usually called Kei Shoki because he was a shoki “secretary”– (fl. c. 1478-1506), a priest at Kencho-ji in Kamakura, this painting was recently re-attributed to the priest-painter Ishii, active ca. 1400-1450 at Kencho-ji and also Tofuku-ji in Kyoto. An exhibition in 1998 centered on a “White-robed Kannon” in the Idemitsu Museum of Arts that is generally accepted as by Isshi and made the re-attribution of the present painting on the basis of stylistic similarities possible..
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