A Long Tale for an Autumn Night

Title: A Long Tale for an Autumn Night (Aki no yo nagamonogatari)
Creator: Unidentified
Medium: Handscroll
Material: Ink, color, and gold on paper
Date: ca. 1400
Culture: Japan
Dimensions: 1’ 5/16” x 43’ 5 5/8”
Repository: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This painting is from a set of handscrolls which describes an affair between a buddhist monk and a young assistant. In the scene depicted, the young man commits suicide, and after his body is pulled from the water the grief-stricken monk devotes himself to his faith and attains salvation. As is typical with Japanese handscrolls, the image shows a flow of time from right to left without any hard boundaries, to emphasize that the story in the image is ongoing as it is being unrolled. The simple yet colorful natural landscape in the background is uninterrupted as one can see the acolyte drowning on the right, and then to the left in the same image his body is being laid on the ground. The figure of the young man is easily identifiable because of his bright red clothing, a color of spiritual significance to zen buddhism that also stands out very well against the pastel background and the other, less significant figures. On the left, the figure of the monk can be identified by his shaved head; he is bent over the body of his lover, his head bowed in grief and his arm raised, likely to wipe away his tears. The flow of time as the scroll is unwrapped is very precise. The viewer is directed to look toward the water by two monks rowing toward something out of view. As the scroll is unrolled, the drowning man is revealed, and then so are the people on the opposite shore noticing his plight and rushing to save him. Finally, the viewer can see that they were too late, as his body is brought onto the beach. The image, like the rest of the scroll, tells a story of loss and renewal meant to be read from right to left. Space is arranged so that it represents time. If one were to continue, they would see onlookers wondering about the commotion with the same continuous natural landscape in the background, then a ceremony that is probably the acolyte’s funeral, and then finally the monk returning to his post and resuming his holy work with renewed dedication.

Source: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/65123?pos=7

Author: Benjamin Rothstein

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