Skip to main content
Humanities LibreTexts

1.6: Muromachi and Momoyama Periods (1338-1615 CE)

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    ( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorA}[1]{\vec{#1}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorAt}[1]{\vec{\text{#1}}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorB}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorC}[1]{\textbf{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorD}[1]{\overrightarrow{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorDt}[1]{\overrightarrow{\text{#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectE}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash{\mathbf {#1}}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)

    \(\newcommand{\avec}{\mathbf a}\) \(\newcommand{\bvec}{\mathbf b}\) \(\newcommand{\cvec}{\mathbf c}\) \(\newcommand{\dvec}{\mathbf d}\) \(\newcommand{\dtil}{\widetilde{\mathbf d}}\) \(\newcommand{\evec}{\mathbf e}\) \(\newcommand{\fvec}{\mathbf f}\) \(\newcommand{\nvec}{\mathbf n}\) \(\newcommand{\pvec}{\mathbf p}\) \(\newcommand{\qvec}{\mathbf q}\) \(\newcommand{\svec}{\mathbf s}\) \(\newcommand{\tvec}{\mathbf t}\) \(\newcommand{\uvec}{\mathbf u}\) \(\newcommand{\vvec}{\mathbf v}\) \(\newcommand{\wvec}{\mathbf w}\) \(\newcommand{\xvec}{\mathbf x}\) \(\newcommand{\yvec}{\mathbf y}\) \(\newcommand{\zvec}{\mathbf z}\) \(\newcommand{\rvec}{\mathbf r}\) \(\newcommand{\mvec}{\mathbf m}\) \(\newcommand{\zerovec}{\mathbf 0}\) \(\newcommand{\onevec}{\mathbf 1}\) \(\newcommand{\real}{\mathbb R}\) \(\newcommand{\twovec}[2]{\left[\begin{array}{r}#1 \\ #2 \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\ctwovec}[2]{\left[\begin{array}{c}#1 \\ #2 \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\threevec}[3]{\left[\begin{array}{r}#1 \\ #2 \\ #3 \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\cthreevec}[3]{\left[\begin{array}{c}#1 \\ #2 \\ #3 \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\fourvec}[4]{\left[\begin{array}{r}#1 \\ #2 \\ #3 \\ #4 \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\cfourvec}[4]{\left[\begin{array}{c}#1 \\ #2 \\ #3 \\ #4 \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\fivevec}[5]{\left[\begin{array}{r}#1 \\ #2 \\ #3 \\ #4 \\ #5 \\ \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\cfivevec}[5]{\left[\begin{array}{c}#1 \\ #2 \\ #3 \\ #4 \\ #5 \\ \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\mattwo}[4]{\left[\begin{array}{rr}#1 \amp #2 \\ #3 \amp #4 \\ \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\laspan}[1]{\text{Span}\{#1\}}\) \(\newcommand{\bcal}{\cal B}\) \(\newcommand{\ccal}{\cal C}\) \(\newcommand{\scal}{\cal S}\) \(\newcommand{\wcal}{\cal W}\) \(\newcommand{\ecal}{\cal E}\) \(\newcommand{\coords}[2]{\left\{#1\right\}_{#2}}\) \(\newcommand{\gray}[1]{\color{gray}{#1}}\) \(\newcommand{\lgray}[1]{\color{lightgray}{#1}}\) \(\newcommand{\rank}{\operatorname{rank}}\) \(\newcommand{\row}{\text{Row}}\) \(\newcommand{\col}{\text{Col}}\) \(\renewcommand{\row}{\text{Row}}\) \(\newcommand{\nul}{\text{Nul}}\) \(\newcommand{\var}{\text{Var}}\) \(\newcommand{\corr}{\text{corr}}\) \(\newcommand{\len}[1]{\left|#1\right|}\) \(\newcommand{\bbar}{\overline{\bvec}}\) \(\newcommand{\bhat}{\widehat{\bvec}}\) \(\newcommand{\bperp}{\bvec^\perp}\) \(\newcommand{\xhat}{\widehat{\xvec}}\) \(\newcommand{\vhat}{\widehat{\vvec}}\) \(\newcommand{\uhat}{\widehat{\uvec}}\) \(\newcommand{\what}{\widehat{\wvec}}\) \(\newcommand{\Sighat}{\widehat{\Sigma}}\) \(\newcommand{\lt}{<}\) \(\newcommand{\gt}{>}\) \(\newcommand{\amp}{&}\) \(\definecolor{fillinmathshade}{gray}{0.9}\)


    Although the Emperor of Japan was the titular head of government, the shogun (samurai military commander) was the authority that governed the country from 1185 until 1868. As the leader of the daimyo (local samurai warlords) and their samurai (warriors), the shogun had an elite army to fight, conquer, control, and manage the masses. Early shogun and daimyo were in constant warfare until the Edo period (1615-1868) when Tokugawa Shogunate unified the country. 1450-1600 cover the Muromachi period (1338-1573) and Japan's Momoyama period (1573-1615). These periods yielded artworks forming the foundation of today's Japanese visual culture: ink washes, Zen paintings, and screen paintings. 

    Sumi-e (or suibokuga) is a style of painting originating in China and brought to Japan in the 14th century by Zen monks. The black and white ink wash painting style – often presented in a vertical, hanging scroll format – became popular during the Muromachi period in the hands of Zen priest-artists. The subject matters of ink wash paintings vary from the representations of Buddhist deities, eccentric Zen masters to evocative landscapes, painted as vehicles of expressions, aids for meditation, and even a path towards enlightenment. 

    Muromachi Period Ink Wash Paintings

    Tōyō (1420-1506) was the most significant Zen priest-artist in the second half of the 15th century. Comparing his two ink wash paintings demonstrates his deft use of the brush and his versatility in manipulating gradations of ink as his vehicle of expression. In Autumn Landscape (1.6.1), Sesshū's brushstroke control is seen in the variety of lines. Thicker jagged lines form the outlines of rocks and rooftops of the village in the foreground, with shorter and softer strokes depicting vegetations in the mid-ground, under the recessed mountains. While the rock formations and the mountains were outlined with black concentrated ink, the shapes were filled with broader brushstrokes of greys. Beyond the trees, the slight hint of distant mountains is in the far horizon, represented by arcs of sheer diluted ink. 


    Black and white print of mountains, trees, sea and houses
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Autumn Landscape (1470s, ink on paper, 121.1 x 76.7 cm) Public Domain

    In Haboku Landscape (1.6.2)Sesshū's careful delineations have given way to a more gestural method of painting. "Haboku" means "splashed ink," however it does not mean the artist simply throws ink onto the surface. Brushes are still used with differing tonalities of ink wash, replacing distinct outlines to render abstract shapes. From the surface of Haboku Landscape, spontaneous impressions of mountains, rock outcroppings, vegetations, and rivers hover between reality and dreams. Sesshu anchored these suggestions with delineations of rooftops and a pole peeking out behind fences; towards the bottom right as two people float on a boat. These concrete representations complement the more abstract shapes and let the viewers connect with the painting through objects they recognize. The wide range of brushstrokes and his command of ink in these two contrasting paintings exemplify Sesshū's mastery as the foremost artist of the Muromachi period.   

    Very foggy scene of mountains and trees in black and ink
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Haboku Landscape (1495, ink on paper, 377.1 x 83.0 cm)  Public Domain


    Momoyama Period (1573-1615)

    The sedate religious themes in monochromatic ink wash paintings of the Muromachi period gave way to secular themes in the large-scale opulence of Momoyama paintings. This painting style -- developed by the Kano School in the 16th century -- became the primary mode of castle interior decorations and continued to be heavily patronized by samurai elites in the next few centuries.

    The Momoyama period is a short transitional period full of violent confrontations; daimyo vied for territory and power; the ultimate goal was to rule the country as a shogun. When a daimyo successfully dominated a region, an imposing castle was constructed as his residence. Part testament to daimyo military prowess and part stronghold, a castle was a sprawling complex with many steep walls and moats to protect the central keep. As the last defensible haven, the central keep towered high over the complex. Himeji Castle (1.6.3) in Hyōgo Prefecture is a fine example of daimyo's castle still standing today. 


    White castle made up of white stone located on the top of a hill
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Himeji Castle - "Himeji castle" by Mr Wabu  CC BY-SA 2.0


    Most paintings in the Momoyama period existed to decorate the interiors of castles. In concert with the imposing nature of a castle, the paintings were equally flamboyant. The subject matters of these paintings ranged from landscapes, vegetation, animals to genre scenes of life in the cities. These were painted on the large-scale surfaces prevalent in the castle interior: fusuma (sliding door panels) and byobu (free-standing folding screens). 


    Kano School

    Kano Eitoku's Chinese Guardians Lions (1.6.4) painted on a 6-panel byobu typifies this visual style. Emerging from a field of gold, a pair of mythical animals with muscular bodies and glaring eyes stride confidently toward the viewers; the bold images are set in a shimmering background on an awe-inspiring, large tableau. The tableau provided a visual backdrop for the daimyo when they received their vassals, entertained their guests, issued their orders, or meted their punishments. The gold glittered and gleamed as the screens reflected candlelight in the castle, impressing the daimyo's audience. As successful military leaders in turbulent times, daimyo sought to perpetuate the image of power, authority, and fortune to bolster their hard-fought status.

    Under Kano Eitoku (1543 - 1590), the Kano School emerged as the dominant purveyor of Momoyama paintings, such as Chinese Guardian Lions. "Kano School" denotes a lineage of hereditary professional artists operating within the Kano familial orbit. At the start of the Momoyama period in 1573, the Kanos had been in operation for 100 years, providing affluent clients with a wide array of subject matters in various formats. 


    painted picture of two Chinese lions walking on land
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Chinese Guardian Lions (late 16th century, ink and gold leaf on paper, 450 x 225 cm) Public Domain


    Kano Masanobu (1434 - 1530), the school's founder, was skilled in the Chinese ink-wash painting of landscapes favored in the Muromachi period. Chinese ink wash painting emphasizes the qualities of lines and brushwork; the image was constructed out of monochromatic tonalities varied by the concentration of the black ink wash. Kano Motonobu (1476 - 1559), Masanobu's son and the second patriarch of the school, was a versatile artist. He was adept in the ink wash style, also painting figural themes according to the Japanese-style convention yamato-e consisting of flat areas of bright colors without any visible brushwork. In Hosokawa Sumimoto on Horseback (1.6.5), the body of the horse and samurai in armor were outlined in black and filled with red, black, and white without any concept of shading. This method of painting allowed detailed patterns and decorations to be added, as in the detailing of the armor with white dots and red mosaic-like tiles.  


    ink drawing of a man on horseback
    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Hosokawa Sumimoto on Horseback (1507, hanging scroll, ink, and colors on silk, 119.5 x 59.5 cm) Public Domain

    The other Japanese convention Motonobu brought and developed in the Kano school repertoire was using delineated negative space – often in the shape of clouds – to cover and divide the composition. In Flowers and Birds of the Four Seasons (1.6.6) the sea dominates the painting's top and left-hand side and the tree branches tower above the rock outcrop. While Motonobu used very subtle, minimal shading to outline them, the sea generally remains as unpainted shapes.

    sea with rock outcrop and large branch with birds Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): Flowers and Birds of the Four SeasonsPublic Domain


    In contrast, the jagged rock formation demonstrated the brushwork and different shades of ink-wash to define its craggy and sharp shapes. In this painting, Motonobu merged the two lineages -- the Chinese brushwork and the Japanese flat patterning of shapes -- into synthesis and the signature style of the Kano School. Since this painting is mainly monochromatic, the clouds are left as unpainted areas; in colored Japanese-style (yamato-e) paintings, the negative space/cloud formations were typically filled with gold. Motonobu's innovative synthesis and the practice of gilding large-scale surfaces were passed onto and perfected by his successor, the third patriarch of the school, Kano Eitoku. 

    In the context of the evolution of Kano School's visual style, Eitoku shifted Motonobu's emphasis toward bolder brushstrokes and more prominent motifs, more decorative and stylized.  A comparison between Motonobu's Patriarchs of Zen Buddhism, Xiangyen Zhixian Sweeping with a Broomand Eitoku's Chinese Guardian Lions demonstrates how the cloud formations became more stylized. The shading towards the edge of the clouds and the ground the man is standing on in Motonobu's image are gone; in contrast, Eitoku's cloud and ground have fused into a flat, ambiguous surface of gold. Brushstrokes and shading suggesting landscape features in Eitoku's painting are primarily obscured by silhouettes of clouds. The heavily stylized curls in the lions' manes and tails, and the outlined bodies of the lions, emphasize their decorative rather than naturalistic qualities. 

    Having struck a chord with the elite samurai clientele, Kano Eitoku received a significant number of commissions from the most powerful daimyo of the period, Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Eitoku involved all members of the Kano School -- from apprentices, junior artists, and himself (as the master/principal designer) – to complete the commissions on time. The apprentices prepared the pigments and papers; the junior artists painted assigned areas while Eitoku designed the overall composition and painted the most important parts. Momoyama's glittering folding screens and sliding doors of gold-leaf backgrounds were produced this way. 

    Colors and gold-leaf, bold brushstrokes, and monumental motifs came together in Eitoku's 8-panel byobu Cypress Tree (1.6.7). A towering, almost 2-meter-high cypress tree with a solid half-a-meter trunk anchors the composition. Despite Eitoku's palpable sweeping brushstrokes, the curving trees are highly simplified and stylized. The bold outlines of the tree branches portray undulating movements against the shimmering gold backgrounds. Complimenting the massive brown silhouette of the tree is the delicate detailing of the grey lichens on the trunk and the olive-green leaves sprouting out of the branches. Flat areas of sapphire blue peek through the silhouette of gold clouds indicating water with outcropped rocks. While bringing the painting alive and accentuating its decorativeness, colors also define this screen within Japanese-style (yamato-e) tradition. The imposing cypress tree parallels the ferocity of the Chinese lions; both are symbols of power and dominance highly favored by the Momoyama daimyo to decorate their castle interiors. 


    Large cypress trees on a gold background
    Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\): Cypress Tree (1590, color and gold leaf on paper, 170.3 x 460.5 cm) Public Domain


    The tea service was an important part of the Shogun ceremonial events and the room for the ceremony demonstrated the value and prestige of the shogun as the ruling regent. One of the first elaborate tea rooms was constructed for Toyotomi Hideyoshi when he was named Imperial Regent. The tearoom was portable, ready to be assembled inside of a larger room and transported with the regent wherever he traveled. Although the original tearoom was destroyed over time, replicas based on documentation were reconstructed in different castles. The gold room (1.6.8) was small, only 2.7 meters by 2.55 meters, and made from cypress wood covered with thousands of sheets of gold leaf on every surface; the walls, ceiling and shoji (sliding doors). On the floor sat crimson tatami mats made from the lush, expensive fabric. 


    Gold Tea Room
    Figure \(\PageIndex{8}\): Gold tea room - Public Domain

    The shimmering tea service (1.6.9) was also made from gold or gilded in gold, all meant to impress others and display the regent's power to all who came to visit him. 

    Gold Tea Set
    Figure \(\PageIndex{9}\): Gold tea set - CC BY-SA 3.0


    With the success of Eitoku's visual style, the Kano School firmly established itself as the institution in which the standard of Momoyama paintings and beyond was conceptualized. Similar to academies of art in Western Europe between the 17th to the 19th century, it was enormously influential. The school was not only an arbiter of taste; it was also a training ground for many young and upcoming painters between the 16th and the 19th centuries. "The heads of the Kano school seemed to have an affinity with the controlling figures of the day which contributed to making the school into an enormous organization of artists with a powerful system of hierarchy."[1]

    [1]Jōhei, S. (1984). The Era of the Kanō School. Modern Asian Studies, 18(4), 647-656. Retrieved from


    This page titled 1.6: Muromachi and Momoyama Periods (1338-1615 CE) is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Deborah Gustlin & Zoe Gustlin (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative) .

    • Was this article helpful?