Eastern Art Online, Yousef Jameel Centre for Islamic and Asian Art

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Three old men thinking about death


    • currently in research collection

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  • Japanese Paintings in the Ashmolean Museum by Janice Katz

    Japanese Paintings in the Ashmolean Museum

    Three old men with stubborn expressions on their faces sit facing one another. Above them, the kyōka verses relate their thoughts:

    Although death should bring comfort, this is not assured,
    after one passes the age of eighty-eight.
    If the messenger from the other world comes now,
    I’ll answer that I’ll be out until I’m ninety-nine.
    If you say you’re out, the messenger will certainly return.
    Rather, I would just tell him to go away for good.

    The verses, written in very colloquial, informal language speak of the messenger of the Buddha coming to take the men upon their death. Not convinced that a better place awaits them in the afterworld, they agree to defy death for as long as possible. Though they refute the Buddhist belief in salvation and rebirth, the trio sits in the form of a Buddhist triad. The figure in the middle takes the place of the Amida Buddha who ushers souls to the Pure Land after death. The two figures on either side mimic the Buddha's attendants. The direction in which the verses are read reinforces this allusion. The verse at the left reads right to left, the one on the right reads left to right, and the one in the middle is read beginning with the centre line first.

    Yokoyama Seiki was a native of Kyoto and a pupil of Matsumura Keibun (1779-1843), himself a pupil of Goshun. He was a talented painter, and represented the Shijō school on important commissions such as decorating the Imperial Palace in 1855. It is tempting to see Three Old Men as a very telling composition, which gives us insight into Seiki's personality.

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