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‘Imaginary Elephants’: the sculptures created by a 17th-century artist who had never seen an elephant.

2 min read

We are in Japan. The Tōshōgu Shrine complex of Nikkō is popular for its architectural and sculptural beauty, including the Three Wise Monkeys and the “Sleeping Cat”. Another among its hundreds of sculptures is commonly referred to as “Sōzō-no-Zō”, literally the “Imaginary Elephants.”
The sculpture is located on the gable of the Kamijinko (Upper Sacred Storehouse or God’s Storehouse), where a pair of strange-looking animals grin with crescent-shaped eyes. The sculpture on the left is green and white, while the other is black and both are complete with golden tusks.
The Kamijinko was constructed in 1635 and the designs for its sculptures were commissioned to the famed painter Kanō Tan’yū who, however, had never seen an elephant before.
And so he had no choice but to design the animals according to readings, and from word of mouth descriptions.
Prior to the creation of the sculpture, there had only been three instances where live elephants were brought to Japan and only powerful samurai lords were able to see the animals.
Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the Tokugawa shogunate, was gifted an elephant in 1602, but it was not until 1728 that another one arrived in Japan.
Either way Tan’yū’s designs were very accurate and included impressive details.
And this is the result:

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