JAPANESE - Pair of Wooden Temple Figures, NioJAPANESE - Pair of Wooden Temple Figures, NioJAPANESE - Pair of Wooden Temple Figures, NioJAPANESE - Pair of Wooden Temple Figures, Nio
Pair of Wooden Temple Figures, Nio
Est. 1467-1652
71 in. high
The Japanese Nio, or “benevolent kings,” are figures that were placed outside Buddhist temples, on each side of the entrance, to ward off evil spirits, demons, and thieves from the late Muromachi to early Edo periods — or roughly 1467 to 1652.

The Nio are Indian in origin — manifestations of Vajrapani Bodhisattvas. By some accounts, they protected the Buddha when he traveled throughout India.

These figures are approximately 500 years old, according to carbon-14 dating conducted on the objects. They were once installed in a famous home that was photographed for the cover of a Frank Lloyd Wright book.

Each figure is named after a cosmic sound. The closed-mouth figure is Ungyo, who utters “un” or “om,” meaning death. He is also called Nareen Kongo and is said to be a form of the Indian god Vishnu. With his tightly closed mouth and tensed both arms, he represents latent might. The open-mouthed partner is Misshaku Kongo (Agyo), who sounds “ah,” meaning birth. He is equated to the Indian deity Vajrapani, whose name means “thunderbolt holder.” He bares his teeth, raises his fist, and holds a Kongosho, which is a symbol of the power he represents.

The Nio are constructed in the traditional multi-block design. Old works were conventionally repaired bit by bit, over time, as individual blocks shrank at different rates or were damaged by insects. Damaged blocks were removed, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, and replaced with exact copies of the piece. It is common to find figures with repairs spanning many years, as is the case with these particular pieces. This pair was originally lacquered. Though none of the lacquer survives, there is evidence of the gesso-like layer on the surface of each figure.

It is interesting to note that this pair — each figure standing 71 inches tall — is a close copy of the Nio guarding the south gate of the Todaiji in Japan. However, the Todaiji pair, completed in 1203, stands 26 feet tall.

In both examples, the classic, fierce and threatening expressions punctuate their purpose as protectors of the Buddhist temple.