The three portraits of Jingo-ji Temple (神護寺三像)

The three portraits of Jingo-ji Temple are three portraits owned by Kyoto Jingo-ji Temple. As "Color painting on silk, MINAMOTO no Yoritomo's portrait, unconfirmed, TAIRA no Shigemori's portrait, unconfirmed, and FUJIWARA no Mitsuyoshi's portrait, unconfirmed," were designated as National Treasures in 1951.


These three portraits are drawn on a single piece of silk of 143 cm in height and 112 cm in width. The portrait of MINAMOTO no Yoritomo is drawn facing right, the portrait of TAIRA no Shigemori is facing left, and the portrait of FUJIWARA no Mitsuyoshi is facing left. Each wear sokutai, a formal court dress, and a hair pin type sword, which means the three in the portraits are high nobilities at least Shii (Fourth Rank) and are military officers according to the studies in ancient court and military practices and usage.

They are recognized as one of the portrait masterpieces in Japanese art history for their excellent realistic and artistic qualities. They are sometimes classified as the famous items of nise-e, a Kamakura period realistic portraiture of courtiers and warriors painted in the yamato-e (Japanese picture) style; however, they are not exactly nise-e which is a small portrait. The artists seem to try to draw not only the appearance, but also the inner side of the figures; it is supposed that they were influenced by Southern Sung Chinese painting. In Japan, the portrait of MINAMOTO no Yoritomo is highly appreciated for its successful depiction of the strong will and fortitude of the figure. The portrait of TAIRA no Shigemori is highly valued in Europe, and it had been to France and exhibited at Louvre Museum in exchange for Venus de Milo and Mona Lisa. The portrait of FUJIWARA no Mitsuyoshi shows a distinctive difference compared with the other portraits stated above in its description of the figure.

According to a popular theory, they are recognized as portraits of MINAMOTO no Yoritomo, TAIRA no Shigemori, and FUJIWARA no Mitsuyoshi, and reported that they were drawn by the famous nise-e painter FUJIWARA no Takanobu, who lived at the end of 12th century; however, a new theory was announced in 1995 that they are the portraits of Tadayoshi ASHIKAGA, Takauji ASHIKAGA, and Yoshiakira ASHIKAGA; the identification of the figures and the timing of drawing have been controversial since then. In the process of controversy, it was confirmed that the portraits were drawn at least after the death of FUJIWARA no Takanobu in 1205, and a theory which defines Takanobu as the producer of these three portraits had already been denied both in the popular theory and the new theory. However, some supporters of the popular theory claim that the three portraits were drawn based upon an original drawing drawn by Takanobu.

Popular theory

In the popular theory, the figures of the three portraits are assumed as MINAMOTO no Yoritomo, TAIRA no Shigemori, and FUJIWARA no Mitsuyoshi. These three drawings have no credit, and there is no description that clarifies the identifications of the figures of the portraits on the drawings. However, "Jingo-ji Temple ryakki" (a journal of Jingo-ji Temple), written around the period of the Northern and Southern Courts (in the middle of the 14th century) described that Jingo-ji Temple had the portraits including Goshirakawain, TAIRA no Shigemori, MINAMOTO no Yoritomo, FUJIWARA no Mitsuyoshi, and TAIRA no Narifusa and they were drawn by FUJIWARA no Takanobu; this was the clue to judge the figures as TAIRA no Shigemori, MINAMOTO no Yoritomo, and FUJIWARA no Mitsuyoshi. A portrait of MINAMOTO no Yoritomo which is in the possession of the British Museum with a credit of the portrait of Yoritomo obviously copied the unconfirmed portraits of MINAMOTO no Yoritomo in Jingo-ji Temple; the period of drawing is regarded from the period of the Northern and Southern Courts to the Muromachi period, and it strongly supported the popular theory.

The feature of the three portraits, including the unconfirmed portrait of Yoritomo, is its exquisite and realistic drawing style, and it has been evaluated that such style was established when the influence of a realistic portrait style flourished in the Sung China period came to Japan at the end of the 12th century. There was also a tentative theory which assumed the period of drawing of the three portraits as the end of Kamakura period to the period of the Northern and Southern Courts in the 14th century based on the detailed examination of the drawing (the theory claimed by Toyomune MINAMOTO and Kiyoka SAKURAI); however, the popular theory stated above had been believed without any doubt until the middle of 1990s.

New theory

In 1995, Michio YONEKURA, an art historian (belonged to Tokyo National Research Institute of Cultural Properties at that time), announced a new theory that the portrait of MINAMOTO no Yoritomo, unconfirmed was a portrait of Tadayoshi ASHIKAGA. After that, Hideo KURODA, a historian, announced a theory that reinforces the Yonekura theory.

The theory claimed by Yonekura and Kuroda has wide-ranging evidence, for example, the form of the headdress worn in the portraits is observed only after the end of the Kamakura period, the hair pin type sword has a form that was established from the 13th to the 14th century, the silk in such a size used for the three portraits appeared after the late Kamakura period and silk was connected before that period, and the style of expression (drawing of eye brows, eyes, ears, and lips) of the three portraits is strongly similar to the one in the middle of the 14th century; based on such evidence, it is natural to suppose these three portraits were drawn in the period of the Northern and Southern Courts.

Besides, "Tadayoshi ASHIKAGA's vow" as of April 23, 1345 also strongly supports the new theory. This vow was written for Jingo-ji Temple by Tadayoshi ASHIKAGA, and it described that he (Tadayoshi) enshrines the figures of Shogun (Takauji ASHIKAGA) and himself in Jingo-ji Temple to make a Buddhist connection. Normally an upper ranking person is placed to the right side and a lower rank is to the left when two persons are seen in a portrait so that Yonekura argued based upon this vow that the left facing TAIRA no Shigemori is Takauji ASHIKAGA and the right facing MINAMOTO no Yoritomo is ASHIKAGA Tadayoshi.

The portrait of FUJIWARA no Mitsuyoshi, unconfirmed, which is facing left similarly to the portrait of Shigemori, unconfirmed, is supposed to be Yoshiakira ASHIKAGA. Yonekura indicated an evidence that the appearance of the Yoshiakira ASHIKAGA's wooden figure which is in the possession of Kyoto Jito-in Temple is very similar to the features of the portrait of FUJIWARA no Mitsuyoshi, unconfirmed; on the other hand, Kuroda shows his Yoshiakira theory based on a political view point. For several years from 1345, the government experienced a duarchy by Takauji and Tadayoshi; however, their relationship had broken down from the Kanno Incident; when Tadayoshi beat Takauji in 1951, Takauji retired from the front lines of politics once and Tadayoshi chose Yoshiakira, the son of Takauji, as his partner and started the new duarchy. Kuroda claimed that the portrait of Yoshiakira (the portrait of Mitsuyoshi, unconfirmed) was newly drawn as an alternative of the portrait of Takauji (the portrait of Shigemori, unconfirmed) at that time, and the huge damage and the wrinkle of the fold on the portrait of Takauji means that it was folded when the portrait of Yoshiakira was drawn.

Moreover, Kuroda also pointed out that the portrait of MINAMOTO no Yoritomo at the British Museum, which was one of the evidences supporting the popular theory, was drawn after the mid Edo period (the 18th century) based on the credit. The effect of some evidence for the popular theory became invalid due to the indication of the new theory claimed by Yonekura and Kuroda as stated above, and it had been controversial significantly between the popular theory and the new theory.


The new theory claimed by Yonekura and Kuroda has been supported mainly by historians and junior art historians. On the other hand, it is often senior art historians who support the popular theory and criticize the new theory. When Yonekura considered the portrait of Shigemori, unconfirmed as Takauji ASHIKAGA and the portrait of Mitsuyoshi, unconfirmed as Yoshiakira ASHIKAGA, he pointed out the similarity in appearance of the wooden figures of Takauji and Yoshiakira handed down in Toji-in Temple as one of his evidences; however, Shinichi MIYAJIMA, an art historian, criticized that the similarity in appearance could not be an evidence of identifying the portraits because it is not always true to identify the portrait based on the similarity in appearance in case of portraits in Japan. Yoshikazu KONDO, an expert on the decorum and records of the past, authenticated the costumes and armor of the three portraits in detail, and claimed that these three portraits could be drawn in the first period of the 13th century. Besides, the three portraits were drawn in a method of back coloring, which colors a picture from the reverse side of a silk; it is pointed out that this method is distinctive from the Heian period to the early Kamakura period.

On the other hand, the weakness of the evidence for the popular theory was also revealed; the three portraits are just considered as Yoritomo, Shigemori, and Mitsuyoshi without any objective evidence to identify the figures of these portraits. Throughout the controversy, portraits have actively been reexamined from various aspects in Japan, and this subject gave an important opportunity to review the portraits in Japan.

The new theory has been strongly supported generally for its clear logic; however, in terms of art history, they are taking a drawing style which is seen in the late Heian period to the early Kamakura period, that could not be a drawing in the period of Northern and Southern Courts, and it is repeatedly claimed that there is no positive evidence to consider that these three portraits were done in the period of Northern and Southern Courts; there has been a significant gap between these theories and the controversy has not yet been concluded.

[Original Japanese]