Signs and Symbols

Is there such a thing as Shinto art or aesthetic?

Every twenty years, priests and specially skilled carpenters gather at the Grand Shrine at Ise for a ritual that says a lot about Shinto artistic sensibilities. They construct a new inner shrine on a plot left vacant for the previous twenty years. Then they dismantle the older shrine separated by only a small partition and leave its space empty until it is time to rebuild there. The carpenters use only the finest cypress, fashioned with the simplest of tools, and use no nails, adhesives, or artificially produced material of any kind. Each stroke of the plane or hammer is part of an ancient ritual that blends religious reverence and awe with the practical demands of sacred architecture. Each structure, however small and humble, is a work of sacred craftsmanship.

During the Middle Ages, Shinto sculptors created anthropomorphic images of various kami, largely under the influence of Buddhism’s rich iconography. Some sculptures remain important symbols in a few individual devotional cults within Shinto (such as Sanno Ichijitsu, with its images of the kamis monkey messengers). But on the whole, modern Shinto worship is aniconic, focusing on the presence of symbolic objects, such as the mirror and sword, within the holy of holies. A unique and historically important art form is the so-called shrine mandala. Stylized depictions of individual shrines depict the sacred site as a meditative device on a hanging scroll. Members of certain sects have used these mandalas as devotional focuses of esoteric contemplative rituals. Above all, shrines and their settings remain the most important visual expression of Shinto beliefs and values. Simple, natural beauty is the key.

A Shinto religious goods store in Tokyo displays miniature shrines for home use, as well as miniature torii gates and other ritual objects used for making offerings.


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