Times & Places

Azuchi-Momoyama period (1573-1603)

The Momoyama period is named for the site of the last great architectural project of the shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598). It is sometimes referred to as the Azuchi-Momoyama period, referring to Oda Nobunaga's (1534-1582) castle at Azuchi. The dates of this transitional period preceding the establishment of a single, unified authority are still debated. The dates 1568 or 1573 are used to mark its beginning; the former commemorates Nobunaga's arrival in Kyoto, while the latter notes the deposition of the last Ashikaga shogun. The dates 1600 and 1615 mark the period's end, representing the Battle of Sekigahara in which Nobunaga's forces defeated those of Toyotomi and the defeat of the Toyotomi family by Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542-1616) at Osaka Castle, respectively.

Two distinct stylistic approaches appear in the arts of the Momoyama period: the opulent and robust, and the sparse and understated. The opulent and robust included lavish ornamentation applied to architecture, furnishings, paintings, and garments, while the sparse and understated formed a counter-aesthetic informed and inspired by historical precedents.

The Momoyama period was an age of prodigious building and magnificent display. Castle complexes were constructed in impressive numbers during this time, epitomizing both the dynamic spirit of the age in their great size, ostentatious splendor, and dominating presence, as well as the quality of impermanence that is associated with the period. Enormous and ostentatious castles and villas were filled with lavish paintings executed on sliding-door panels and folding screens, and the technique of applying strong mineral colors to gold leaf became fashionable. The use of gold leaf both helped to illuminate the interiors of palatial chambers and also served as a means of demonstrating the wealth and power of the patron.

The ostentation of castles and their interiors was contrasted by tea houses and rooms. These small structures, their interiors, and associated works of art were characterized by an aesthetic concept called kirei sabi or elegant simplicity; although Toyotomi Hideyoshi covered the walls of his small, wooden tea house with gold leaf to demonstrate his power. The famed tea master credited for establishing the refined aesthetics of the tea ceremony, Sen no Rikyu, was employed by Nobunaga and then by Hideyoshi. For Sen no Rikyu, the ceremony was closely associated with Zen philosophy, as well as the contemplative arts of Zen painting and calligraphy. For military leaders such as Hideyoshi and Nobunaga, partaking in the tea ceremony held important political significance as well as serving as a mark of cultural refinement.

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Related Multimedia

lecture in conjunction with Japan's Golden Age: Momoyama, September 8–December 1, 1996; John Carpenter is catalogue editor and author
lecture in conjunction with Japan's Golden Age: Momoyama, September 8-December 1, 1996; speaker is Lecturer, School of New World Studies, University of East Anglia, Norwich, England and catalogue author
1st in series of lectures in conjunction with Japan's Golden Age: Momoyama, September 8-December 1, 1996 ;John Rosenfield is Professor Emeritus, Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Harvard University
lecture in conjunction with Japan's Golden Age: Momoyama, September 8–December 1, 1996; Christine Guth is Adjunct Associate Professor, Department of the History of Art, University of Pennsylvania, and catalogue author
Learn about the Momoyama period in Japan.