Carina Roth

“Iconographic Evolution of En no Gyōja as the Founder of Shugendō”

En no Gyōja 役行者, “En the Ascetic”, or “En the Practitioner”, a charismatic religious figure of the 7th c., is traditionally considered as the founder of Shugendō. While hardly any historical evidence about his life or even existence is extant, he counts among the most famous legendary or half-legendary religious figures in Japan. He has left no writings or teachings, but his hagiography is included in a wide range of documents both in and outside the shugen tradition.

Astonishingly little attention has been paid to the vast production of En no Gyōja images, both sculpted and painted. The earliest known representations date back to the 12th cent., and the amount of En no Gyōja statues, for one, is overwhelming, to the point of being comparable to that of Shōtoku taishi and Kōbō daishi. As the sheer number of his representations shows, the figure of En no Gyōja, elusive though it may be, conveys an ascetic ideal that transcends time and triggers an interest reaching far beyond the boundaries of Shugendō as a religious movement.

This presentation will provide a selective diachronic panorama of the iconographic evolution of En no Gyōja as the founding figure of Shugendō. Starting from medieval examples of statues, paintings or illustrated scrolls on to his contemporary portrayal in manga or illustrated children’s books, I will examine what representations of En no Gyōja reveal about the evolution of the religious current he has come to symbolize.