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Seduction: Japan's Floating World

Hell courtesan (Jigoku Dayu)
late 1840s
by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (Japanese, 1797–1861)
Hanging scroll remounted as a framed panel; ink, colors, and gold on silk.

Hell Courtesan, a legendary fifteenth-century prostitute, was kidnapped by bandits and sold to a brothel. According to a version of her story written in 1809, she changed her name to Hell Courtesan in the belief that she would end up in hell as retribution for what she considered a shameful occupation. Hoping it would lead her to extinguish her sins in this world and achieve rebirth in paradise, Hell Courtesan wore a garment embroidered with an image of hell. Eventually she was helped to enlightenment by the attentions of the Zen monk Ikkyu (1394–1481).

Kuniyoshi's painting shows us Hell Courtesan as a statuesque figure dressed in her signature garment. On the back of the robe is a spectacular scene of the King of Hell, sitting in judgment of the dead. Her heavy brocade obi has a picture of Amida (Sanskrit: Amitabha) Buddha and his golden entourage, welcoming devotees to paradise. Peeking from behind Hell Courtesan, a child attendant holds the ceremonial whisk associated with Zen monks. The square cloth attached to a halter around her neck, and worn like a bib, is an abbreviated form of a Zen monk's traditional overgarment.

Fascinated by Hell Courtesan, Kuniyoshi reworked this theme in many prints and paintings, and even portrayed himself wearing his own replica of her robe. The large scale and expensive materials of this painting are signs that it was created for a wealthy client—possibly a brothel owner.

John C. Weber Collection

Image © Bruce Schwarz.