Artist/maker unknown, Japanese

Made in Japan, Asia

Edo Period (1615-1868)


Ink and color on wood

19 1/2 x 9 7/8 inches (49.5 x 25.1 cm)

Curatorial Department:
East Asian Art

Object Location:

Currently not on view

Accession Number:

Credit Line:
125th Anniversary Acquisition. Gift of Dr. Luther W. Brady, Jr., 2008

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Poetry and poets have been highly revered in Japan for over one thousand years. As early as the tenth century, Japanese emperors commissioned anthologies of the works of the famous poets. By the twelfth century, aristocrats had begun illustrating handscrolls made of paper or silk with imaginary portraits of poets. The majority of such handscrolls depict members of a group known as the Thirty-Six Immortal Poets, who were among the popular authors of the past. By the fifteenth century, low-ranking rural aristocrats and village associations began to donate portraits of poets painted on wooden votive plaques (like this one, part of a rare set) to shrines and temples.

Additional information:
  • PublicationGifts in Honor of the 125th Anniversary of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

    Ema, the Japanese term for such votive plaques, literally means "horse picture," because they were used from the eleventh century onward as gifts meant to substitute for the actual horses traditionally offered to Shinto shrines. The practice of giving ema to shrines and then temples became popular throughout Japan, and eventually artists introduced subjects other than horses. The plaques were usually hung under the eaves of the shrine or temple buildings, so that few ema from the early periods have survived the wear of time and the elements. This example is from a complete set of thirty-six votive plaques of poets, most likely commissioned for a shrine or temple by a wealthy donor, that is a rare example of its type.

    Poetry and poets have been highly revered in Japan for over a thousand years. The works of famous poets were collected in imperially commissioned anthologies as early as the tenth century. By the twelfth century, imaginary portraits of the poets, made by and for the aristocracy, were painted on paper or silk. The most popular of these paintings depicted a group known as the Thirty-six Immortal Poets (Sanjūrokkasen), who were selected from among favorite poets of the past. The practice of portraying these illustrious individuals on ema dates to the thirteenth century. The best-known example still surviving in Japan is installed in a small building called Shisendō (Hall of Poets) in Kyoto and dates to the 1640s.

    The Museum's set is painted on cryptomeria wood, and the reverses of the plaques are inscribed with the date Genroku 11 (1698). Each poet's portrait is accompanied by one of his (or her) verses brushed in calligraphy, which is sometimes quite faded, with only traces of the original thirty-one-syllable poems remaining. Felice Fischer, from Philadelphia Museum of Art: Gifts in Honor of the 125th Anniversary (2002), p. 19.