Unkei Master Sculptor

Unkei: The Great Master of Buddhist Sculpture 運慶

Johannes Schonherr

Unkei (circa 1150-1223) is considered one of the greatest Japanese wood sculptors, famous for his lifelike carvings. A large part of his work are sculptures of Buddhist religious figures but he also portrayed leading monks and scholars of his time. Many of his still extant works are today considered national treasures.

Six of the Eight Youth Attendants of Fudo Myo'o by Unkei, circa 1197, Koyasan Reihokan, Wakayama Prefecture.
Six of the Eight Youth Attendants of Fudo Myo'o by Unkei, circa 1197, Koyasan Reihokan, Wakayama Prefecture
Statue of Unkei, Rokuharamitsuji, Kyoto, Japan.
Statue of Unkei, Rokuharamitsuji, Kyoto

Kei School

Unkei is considered to be the greatest master of the Kei School, a Nara-based school of Buddhist sculpture that formed in the early years of the Kamakura Period (1192-1333). During the Genpei War (1180-1185), Nara and most of its great temples including Todaiji and Kofukuji were destroyed.

Artists of the emerging Kei School were commissioned to craft new artwork for the temples. This proved to be their chance to introduce their new style into Buddhist sculpture, a style focusing on realistic physical depictions of the human body rather than in creating the idealized figures preferred by previous Nara artists.

Considered to be the founder of the Kei School is Kokei, Unkei's father. Though still largely adhering to the traditions of Heian Period sculpture, Kokei began to introduce a first shift towards realism in his works. Kokei is also credited with the introduction of rock crystal to add realistic eyes to his sculptures.

Seated Dainichi Nyorai at Enjoji Temple, Nara, Japan.
Seated Dainichi Nyorai at Enjoji Temple, Nara
Seated Seated Jizo Bosatsu, Kyoto, Japan.
Seated Jizo Bosatsu at Rokuharamitsu-ji Temple, Kyoto

Unkei's Techniques

Unkei started out assisting his father in the restoration of the great Nara temples. Soon, he developed his own very distinctive style. He put his sculptures into dramatic poses, he gave them very realistic, refined faces (on a closer look even veins can be seen on the upper heads), he provided them with detailed muscular structures resembling those of well-built wrestlers (who probably acted as models) and he perfected the use of rock crystal eyes.

Though some of his sculptures are bare-chested, they don't feature nipples or navels. Those details were probably considered to be too earthly for the depiction of divine beings.

Often portraying ancient Indian Buddhist scholars and deities, the sculptures appear distinctively like Japanese characters rooted in Unkei's time.

Perhaps his most famous pair of sculptures, Mujaku Bosatsu and Seshin Bosatsu, are imagined likenesses of the early Indian Buddhist philosophers Asanga Bodhisattva and Vasubandhu Bodhisattva. Looking at them, however, feels like looking at Japanese monks not only of the Kamakura Period, they look like you might meet them at a temple today.

Though the Shogunate resided in Kamakura in Unkei's time, he kept Nara as his base and produced the majority of his work for the temples there.

Unkei was however from time to time commissioned by aristocratic clans elsewhere to create works on their behalf. One of his best, and yes, funny, works were the Eight Youth Attendants of Fudo Myo'o. Six of them survived the times and are now housed at the Koyasan Reihokan on Mount Koya, Wakayama Prefecture. They resemble very lifelike Kamakura youth who, if dressed in a modern style, wouldn't be out of place on the streets of today's Shibuya in Tokyo.

Though Unkei's sculptural work deviated from the traditional ways of portraying Buddhist deities, he was a devout Buddhist nonetheless. Invisible to the human eye when looking at the sculptures, he inserted tablets with Buddhist sutras and other sacred objects deep inside the bodies of his figures as recent X-ray images have shown. Hidden messages that only the addressed spiritual powers would be able to decipher.

Detail of Muchaku at Kofuku-ji, Nara.
Detail of Muchaku (Mujaku Bosatsu) at Kofuku-ji, Nara
Poster for the Unkei Exhibition at Tokyo National Museum, Ueno, Autumn 2017.
Poster for the Unkei Exhibition at Tokyo National Museum, Ueno, Autumn 2017

Unkei's Sons and Students

Unkei had six sons, all of whom became sculptors. Today, only the works of his sons Tankei, Koben and Kosho survive. Tankei took over the role of leader of the Kei School from Unkei. It was Koben, however, who was the closest to his father in his style.

Seeing Unkei's Work Today

The major temples displaying Unkei's work today are Kofukuji and Todaiji Temples in Nara though temples and museums all the way from Wakayama Prefecture (Eight Youth Attendants of Fudo Myo'o at the Koyasan Reihokan Museum on Mount Koya) to Ganjojuin Temple in Izunokuni, Shizuoka Prefecture (Standing Bishamonten) to Jorakuji Temple in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture (Seated Amida Nyorai) have original Unkei works on display.

Grand Tokyo Unkei Exhibition in Autumn 2017

At the time of writing, a large Unkei exhibition is taking place at the Tokyo National Museum in Ueno, titled Unkei - The Great Master of Buddhist Sculpture.

Lasting until November 26th, 2017, the exhibition features not only a great part of Unkei's work but also tries to delineate the traditions Unkei grew out of, including works by his father Kokei as well as to give an impression as to how his sons and students continued his work after he departed.

The exhibition is an ambitious project and it assembles works usually on display at a great variety of Japanese temples, placing them in both chronological and thematic contexts. Catch it while it lasts.

A detailed catalogue in Japanese and English is available at the exhibition for 3,000 yen. 

Period: September 26th to November 26th 2017

Venue: Heiseikan, Tokyo National Museum (Ueno)

Opening times: Daily from 9.30am to 5pm, Friday, Saturday and November 2nd until 9 pm, closed on Monday.

Admission: Adults 1,600 yen, university students 1,200 yen, high school students 900 yen, junior high school students and below free. Persons with disabilities are admitted free of charge with one accompanying person each (please present ID at the ticket booth)

Tel: 03 5777 8600

Tokyo National Museum official English-language exhibition websites with much detailed information on Unkei's history and works including many images:


and cdn.unkei2017.jp/en

Access: walking distance from JR Ueno Station (Park Exit), Tokyo.

Later Kei School in the tradition of Unkei.
Later Kei School in the tradition of Unkei: 12 Heavenly Kings, representing the 12 year cycle of the Chinese calendar, 13th century, Tokyo National Museum and Seikado Bunko Art Museum, Tokyo

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