Textiles have always been used extensively in Buddhist temples for both decorative and practical purposes. Brightly-coloured silks and other fabrics, woven or embroidered, may serve as canopies, banners, or column-shaped hangings to embellish hall interiors, become covers for altars, be draped over statues or chairs, or be sewn into clothing for monks and priests. Many of the fabrics thus used were donated to the temple by the lay community.

In Buddhism, the act of giving is considered one of a number of pious deeds that allow a person to accumulate spiritual merit during his lifetime and which may benefit him along the path to liberation. The merit gained through this act may also be directed towards others, be it deceased parents or children, or more generally to all sentient beings. The practice of donating textiles to temples was carried out by members of all levels of society, no one being considered too humble, though the most lavish gifts were made by emperors and shoguns.

Among the collections of East Asian art assembled by the Swiss businessman Alfred Baur (1865–1951), now housed in the Baur Foundation in Geneva (Switzerland), is a group of 121 Japanese altar cloths, dating mainly from the 18th and 19th centuries, and acquired in 1927. With their rich polychrome designs, enhanced by large quantities of gold or silver thread, they represent the most complex and luxurious forms of weaving of the period. As its name indicates, the altar cloth, or uchishiki in Japanese, serves to cover the top surface of certain altars and tables in Buddhist halls, most frequently those placed in front of the main image or images, as well as smaller side tables. The exact layout of the hall and the number and size of these tables vary according to the school as well as the occasion, just as the dimensions and format of the cloths themselves differ.

Nowadays, uchishiki tend to be kept for special ceremonies, such as commemorative services held for a deceased family member, the Obon festival in honour of the dead, equinox celebrations, or the New Year. Like priests’ mantles (kesa) and temple banners, they frequently bear dedicatory inscriptions written in ink on the lining. These inscriptions would have been made by a priest from the temple at the time of the ceremony in which they were used or just afterwards. They vary in length, being often limited simply to the name of the temple, the date of the donation, or the names of the donor or beneficiaries; they may however contain specific information about the ceremony in which the cloths were used, particularly in the case of centennial anniversaries of a school’s founder or of other major figures in a school’s history. Several of the uchishiki in the Baur collection may thus be linked to the Jôdo Shinshû Pure Land school, with two examples celebrating the 500th anniversary of the death of the school’s founder, Shinran (1173–1262), and a third cloth dedicated exactly a century later, in 1861.

The Baur collection of altar cloths shows remarkable homogeneity in both its weaving techniques and designs, being composed almost exclusively of forms of silk weaving classified in Japan as nishiki and kinran (often translated as brocade), in which the decorative motifs are produced by the introduction of supplementary weft threads, or patterning wefts, which lie on top of the ground weave. They appear on the upper surface of the cloth only when needed to form the design, and otherwise remain unseen on the back. Further chromatic effects are achieved by inserting gold- and silver-wrapped threads, either in the form of flat metal foil pasted onto lacquered mulberry paper, or as thicker twisted threads of gilt paper wrapped around a silk core. When used together on the same cloth, slight contrasts are created by the different reflective properties and textures of the two threads. For many centuries, these highly valued textiles were imported from China, and it was not until the end of the 16th century that weavers from the port of Sakai (Osaka) and the Nishijin quarter of Kyôto had acquired the necessary know-how to imitate them.

At first borrowing heavily from the traditional repertoire of Chinese models – dragons, phoenixes, flowers, auspicious designs, and geometric patterns –, these Japanese textiles were later enriched by the addition of new motifs from India and Europe. The dragon and the phoenix occur with great regularity. Along with the kirin (a sort of unicorn) and the tortoise, these legendary creatures make up a group known as the Four Benevolent Animals, whose appearance in the world was taken as a mark of Heaven’s satisfaction with the enlightened rule of the emperor. Dragon and phoenix are associated in China with the Imperial couple, and were a common theme on court robes as well as on furnishing textiles of the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties. In Japan, they were heralded as auspicious creatures and were therefore often accompanied by a variety of good-luck designs, such as lobed clouds in the shape of mushrooms of longevity, as well as flaming jewels, believed to grant one’s wishes. Flowers, and to a lesser extent fruit, feature prominently in both Chinese and Japanese decorative arts.

One much-favoured pattern of the Ming (1368–1644) dynasty, frequently taken up by Japanese weavers, represents the symbolic flowers of the four seasons: peony (Spring), lotus (Summer), chrysanthemum (Autumn), and plum (Winter). Each of these may also appear singly, with its own literary and cultural associations. The identification of these plants is not always easy as they tend to be shown in conventional forms, or become purely imaginary creations which bear little resemblance to any botanical reality.

The closure of Japan to most of the outside world during the Edo period (1603–1868) only encouraged a fascination within the country for those foreign goods which did manage to trickle in. Indo-European printed cotton chintz, Ottoman carpets and textiles, European “bizarre” silks with their distorted, fanciful flowers, as well as South-East Asian resist-dyed cloths, all provided a rich array of new and exciting designs which were combined with traditional patterns to completely revitalise the production of nishiki brocades in the 18th century. Despite their modest size, therefore, these altar cloths are a testimony to the adaptability and creativity of the Japanese weaver, and above all to his extraordinary craftsmanship.

Text by Helen Loveday