The principal Japanese Buddhist priest robe, called a kesa, is constructed as a rectangular patchwork of striking pattern and glistening fabric. It is most frequently worn by a priest on top of a full-length kimono and draped over the left shoulder. Although the form of the kesa appears to be relatively simple, its fabrication, symbolism, and the technical virtuosity of its textiles make it a rich and intriguing reflection of the philosophical and aesthetic mores of Japanese religion and culture.
The central field of the kesa comprises five, seven, or nine or more vertical strips of fabric sewn together in a columnar arrangement. The formality of the robe increases with the number of columns. This pieced composition is a direct reference to Buddhism’s Indian origins (sometime between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE). Monks following the historical Buddha’s teachings took vows of poverty, renouncing all worldly possessions but their robe, which they stitched together from scraps of cast-off material. A priest’s fabrication of the vestment was (and still is) considered an act of devotion in itself. Instead of the coarse bits of fabric used in the earlier Indian tradition, kesa made in Japan during the Edo period (1615–1868) such as those on display here were often made from sumptuous textiles produced on specialized silk looms set up in Kyoto in the 16th century.
Despite their expensive fabrics, these kesa preserve the patchwork effect and an entrenched religous symbolism. Many kesa textiles might have originated as No theater costumes, court robes, or kimonos donated to temples as a sign of piety. No matter how luxurious, all kesa are likened to a mandala, or a simplified diagram of the Buddhist cosmos, and maintain Buddha at their heart in the form of the central column. Added square patches in the corners (shiten) and shoulder area (niten) represent the guardians of the four quarters and the two Benevolent Kings who protect Buddhist Law.
The pieces on view in this exhibition were selected from the extensive collection of 104 kesa—the largest such collection outside of Japan—donated by Lucy Truman Aldrich in a 1935 gift and 1955 bequest. In total, Miss Aldrich gave more than 700 Asian textiles, which form the heart of the RISD Museum’s Asian textile holdings.