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Sennyūji Temple: Omission of Portraits of Japanese Empresses

Yuki Morishima

University of Pittsburgh 

Sennyūji泉涌寺, established in 855 and located in Kyoto, is known as the “Mitera 御寺 (Imperial Temple).” Sennyūji serves as a bodaiji 菩提寺 (family memorial temple) for the imperial family and houses a large cache of 29 portraits of emperors. Unlike the Meiji-period imperial portraits used as a device of propaganda, these portraits of emperors from the Edo and earlier periods were primarily used for memorial services held at the temple. Sennyūji monks passed down the portraits of emperors as material proof of the legitimacy and authority of the temple as an Imperial Temple.
 Sennyūji houses portraits of thirteen of the fifteen rulers from the Edo period: beginning with the 107th Emperor Goyōzei 後陽成天皇 (1571-1617, r. 1586-1611) and ending with the 121st Emperor Kōmei 孝明天皇 (1831-1866, r. 1846-1866). The absence of portraits of Empresses Meishō 明正天皇 (1623-1696, r. 1629-1643, 109th) and Gosakuramachi 後櫻町天皇 (1740-1813, r. 1762-1770, 117th) from the temple’s collection is significant. Even though Sennyūji held the funerals of these empresses and houses their spirit tablets, the temple does not have their portraits. Unlike the rest of the emperors included in the collection, Meishō and Gosakuramachi were women; their gender distinguishes them from the other subjects included in the collection. However, I suggest that gender discrimination alone cannot explain the absence of these portraits. Because the offspring of or retainers close to the sitter, not the sitter himself, were most often responsible for commissioning memorial portraits, I attribute this absence to the two Empresses not having any heirs or supporters to commission a portrait for them. Focusing on the omission of these portraits of Empresses will shed light on the practice of pre-modern imperial portraiture. 

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