A Japanese Gilt Lacquered Butsudan Altar, Japanese Master

Japanese master

A Japanese Gilt Lacquered Butsudan Altar

Taisho period (1912-1926)

Height 170cm (with 30cm custom made black altar stand height 200cm), width 66.8cm, depth 71cm


All imaginable decoration techniques were used with virtuosity for this butsudan sanctuary: wood carving, lacquer and gilding. Featuring many themes such as Kannon deities, Shi-shi lions,landscapes, flowers and wildlife, clouds and many Buddhist scenes of sages in the forest. There are hardwood medallions at the top of the interior set, hinged doors and two small removable extensions on each side with hand-carved chidori birds landing on a flowering branch the drawers and sliding doors are all decorated with patterns in lacquer. some with rarely used and expensive blue lacquer were applied. An exceptional example in the corpus of this kind of furniture.

The butsudan (仏壇, butsudan or butudan) occupies a central role in Japanese Buddhist traditions, functioning as a domestic shrine for devotional practice and ancestral veneration. This wooden cabinet, often ornately crafted, serves as a focal point for transforming the home environment into a sacred space. With doors that enclose religious icons during non-ceremonial periods, the butsudan symbolically represents the Buddha-field, the enlightened realm craved by Buddhist practitioners.

Internally, the butsudan houses a gohonzon (御本尊), which can be a statue, painting, or calligraphic scroll depicting a Buddha or Bodhisattva central to a particular Buddhist school. More importantly, the butsudan enshrines ihai (位牌), ancestral memorial tablets representing deceased family members. These tablets become powerful symbols, fostering a sense of continuity and respect for past generations within the household.

The butsudan’s significance extends beyond its symbolic representation. It serves as a central location for offerings and prayers. Families may perform daily rituals such as lighting incense and presenting flowers or food before the butsudan. On special occasions and anniversaries, more elaborate ceremonies are conducted, further emphasizing the role of the butsudan in venerating both the Buddha and deceased ancestors. Through these practices, the butsudan facilitates a physical connection between the living and the dead, fostering a sense of filial piety and strengthening the bonds of the family unit.

The widespread use of butsudan likely emerged around the 17th century, although some posit earlier influences. The establishment of a court chapel in 655 CE may have laid the groundwork for the development of domestic altars. Significantly, the rise in popularity of the butsudan coincided with efforts to curb Christianity in Japan. By promoting the use of household altars, Buddhist authorities may have aimed to solidify Buddhist identity and practices within the populace.

While contemporary Japan may witness a simplification of rituals, the butsudan remains a significant feature in many homes. It serves not only as a tangible reminder of Buddhist teachings but also as a space for families to connect with their heritage and deceased loved ones. The enduring presence of the butsudan underscores its continued role in shaping the domestic religious landscape of Japan.


Private collection, Japan
Private collection, Switzerland

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