The Heiji scrolls, dating back to the thirteenth century, are an exquisite example of “Yamato” style painting. They tell the story of the Heiji disturbance, a brief armed conflict which took place in Kyoto in 1159 and 1160, when warriors Fujiwara Nobuyori and Minamoto Yoshitomo staged a coup against the sovereign, Emperor Nijô.
The turmoil and unrest in the Heiji scrolls
“A Night Attack on the Sanjo Palace” depicts Fujiwara Nobuyori and Minamoto Yoshitomo surrounding the palace, placing the emperor in a cart and setting fire to the building. The scroll shows Fujiwara Nobuyori ordering the emperor into the cart and women trying to flee from the fire, while clouds of smoke fill the air.
Traditional Japanese picture scrolls read from right to left, and significant characters and objects appear multiple times. By unfolding the scrolls, one follows the story chronologically.
The cart that is seen as being led by warriors into the palace is the same cart surrounded by warriors and their men on the left side of the scroll. Likewise, the men shown being decapitated are the men whose heads are placed on pikes in the final sequence.
The scroll, which contains a meaningful depiction of Japanese armor as it was used during the early Kamakura era (1185-1333), is now stored in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
The two remaining scrolls, “Imperial Visit to Rokuhara” and “Shinzei” are both kept in Japan, in the Tokyo National Museum and in the Seikado Art Museum respectively.
The “Imperial Visit to Rokuhara” represents the escape of Emperor Nijō and his empress consort from the imperial residence after their arrest by the Minamoto clan, as well as the transfer to the Rokuhara district.
In the first sequence, the emperor and his wife sit on a palanquin while soldiers inspect it. The second scene depicts the procession of the empress, and in the third one, the emperor’s entourage rides on horses. The fourth and final scene represents Nobuyori bewildered by the news of the emperor’s escape.
All scenes, depicted with powerful brushstrokes, convey a great sense of movement and masterfully represent the conflict’s turmoil.