The Medieval World, C. 400–1300

Japanese Art Until C. 1400

Who was Lady Murasaki?

Lady Murasaki was a Heian-era lady-in-waiting in the court of empress-consort Teishi. She was a celebrated poet and novelist and wrote The Tale of Genji, considered to be the world’s first novel. While Chinese was the official language of scholarship in Korea and Japan, The Tale of Genji was written in Japanese. At fifty-four chapters, the work included over four hundred characters, and told the story of the 84 love affairs of Prince Genji and life at court.

Twenty chapters of Lady Murasaki’s The Tale of Genji survive as illustrated scrolls, likely completed by a team of artists, including a calligrapher. The paintings are muted and refined, with an architectural focus. Figures can be seen indoors from above using a technique of representing invisible, “blown-away” roofs. Both the novel and the images make a connection between human emotion and nature, and reflect Buddhist ideas of fleeting earthly pleasures.

This illustration from the medieval Japanese novel The Tale of Genji shows Prince Genji playing the game of Go. Written by a noblewoman named Lady Murasaki, the work is a literary and visual masterpiece. (Art courtesy The Art Archive / Private Collection Paris / Gianni Dagli Orti.)


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