This talk examines the relationship between image and text in paintings of figural subjects from thirteenth and fourteenth century Chinese Chan Buddhism (Chan is better known through its Japanese successor, Zen). In Song and Yuan China, monastic and secular artists produced a significant body of paintings depicting the Chan pantheon’s eccentrics and exemplars. These paintings were often inscribed by senior Chan clerics, who gifted the inscribed works to prominent disciples. These disciples included numerous monks who had travelled from Japan to study at the feet of Chinese masters. The majority of Chan figure paintings existing today survive because of this practice of collecting. In Japan, Chan figure paintings have come to be venerated as the predecessors to later Japanese Zen painting. This talk is concerned with their original Chinese context.
In his lecture Dr. McNeill will argue that these inscribed paintings combined pictorial and lexical content to retell important narratives. These visual narratives were adapted from prototypes in Chan hagiographies: collected tales of exemplars from the Chan lineage, and of eccentrics from the lineage’s periphery. Paintings of Chan figures and the inscriptions upon them communicated religious teachings to their viewers. They mediated the viewer’s relationship to the Chan pantheon. Moreover, they underscored the authority of the living members of the Chan lineage who had inscribed the paintings. This talk analyses the network of connections between painters, inscribers, subjects and viewers of Chan figure paintings. In doing so, it addresses an under researched dimension of thirteenth and fourteenth century Chinese visual culture.