“Few paintings of the period capture the force, confusion, and terror of battle as effectively as does the episode of the burning of the Sanjō Palace in the Heiji monogatari emaki.” – The Encyclopaedia Britannica
One night in January 1160, a band of 500 men stormed the retired Emperor Go-Shirakawa’s palace at Sanjō, took the former emperor captive, killed most of his staff and set the palace ablaze. Go-Shirakawa was carried off to join his son, the reigning Emperor Nijō, who was being held prisoner at The Great Palace. Meanwhile the rebels continued to eliminate their enemies. The coup was brief, effective and bloody.
Soldiers blockaded the [Sanjō] Palace on all four sides and set fire to it. Those who fled out they shot or hacked to death. Many jumped into the wells, hoping that they might save themselves. The ladies-in-waiting of high and low rank and the girls of the women’s quarters, running out screaming and shouting, fell and lay prostrate, stepped on by the horses and trampled by the men. It was more than terrible. No one knows the number of persons who lost their lives. – From “The Burning of the Sanjo Palace” translated by Reischauer & Yamagiwa
Kyoto, in the 12th century, was the setting for an intense power struggle between two samurai clans: the Minamoto and the Taira. The leaders of these clans, Minamoto no Yoshitomo, and Taira no Kiyomori, had once been allies in putting down an earlier rebellion, but a bitter rivalry had developed between them. When Taira no Kiyomori left the capital on a pilgrimage, Minamoto no Yoshitomo saw his chance to seize power, and launched his attack on the Sanjō Palace. Ultimately however, the Taira would return and exact their revenge…
This, in short, is the history of the Heiji Rebellion, a brief civil war that resulted in Taira no Kiyomori’s victory over Yoshitomo and the establishment of Japan’s first samurai led government. History buffs and art lovers alike will be delighted to learn that Bowdoin College has now put online the illustrated 13th century Heiji Monogatari scrolls which depict these events, and in a fully interactive format.
From the Bowdoin website:
“A Night Attack on the Sanjo Palace” provides an excellent introduction to the genre of picture scrolls. The scrolls read from right to left, and all action flows to the left. A few people hurrying flow into a confused throng of warriors and nobles, epitomized by a wayward bystander being crushed by an ox cart. Out of the confusion, attention shifts to the palace, where Fujiwara Nobuyori can be seen ordering the retired emperor into the cart. Wisps of smoke appear, leading to a conflagration at the palace, with hapless supporters of the Taira being killed, and women of the palace attempting, with mixed success, to flee. Gradually order is restored, and a band of warriors, including Fujiwara Nobuyori and his co-conspirator, Minamoto Yoshitomo, surround Go-Shirakawa’s cart in a triumphant procession.
The scroll itself is beautiful. The commentary buttons that explain both the narrative flow and specific images are very helpful. There is also a translation button for the opening portion of the scroll, (quoted above) which introduces the unfolding events. The Bowdoin College site is a great learning tool and a fantastic introduction to this dramatic episode in Kyoto’s history.