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Researchers inspecting a temple in Japan's Shiga prefecture have discovered paintings of eight long-hidden Buddhist saints that could date back more than 1,300 years, Jiro Tsutsui and Yoshito Watari reported for theAsahi Shimbun .
The team used infrared photography to identify soot-darkened paintings on two pillars at the Saimyoji Temple in Kora, northeast of Kyoto.
According to a statement, Hiroshima University art historian Noriaki Ajima was aware of the works prior to the new find, but had previously assumed the images dated from the Edo period, which spanned 1603-1867.
When the temple underwent renovations last year, its chief priest invited Ajima and his colleagues to investigate the paintings further. The scholars' assessment suggested that the works may date from the latter part of the Asuka period, which lasted from 538 to 794 AD, according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Heilbrunn Art History Timeline.
"When I first saw an infrared photograph, I was very surprised to find that the quality of the radiation was completely different from what I had studied since the Heian era [794-1185]," Ajima says in the statement, "and after a Detailed investigation, I concluded that it was the Asuka era.
Each of the two pillars features paintings of four bodhisattvas, central figures in Buddhism who delay personal enlightenment to offer salvation to earthly worshipers.
The paintings, which are around 28 inches tall, were painted in bright colors, including blue, green and vermilion, reports theKyoto Shimbun .
Ajima says clues in the way the artist depicted the saints' ears and palm folds, as well as his clothing, suggest that the images could be the second oldest known paintings in the country, dating only to murals. from the 7th century located in the Horyu-ji Temple, a Unesco World Heritage site in Nara prefecture.
However, at least one academic disagrees with the team's findings. Yoshitaka Ariga from the Tokyo University of the Arts explains that: "It is an important discovery that Buddhist paintings are drawn in columns, but it is unthinkable that they are from the Asuka period, due to the subject and composition of the paintings."
Ariga adds: "Researchers must continue to study to determine when and why the paintings were drawn."
Established by order of Emperor Ninmyō in AD 834, Saimyoji boasts a variety of impressive architectural features, including a three-story pagoda dating from the Kamakura period (1192-1333), a scenic garden, and a main hall.
An elaborate mural illustrating the Lotus Sutra decorates the interior of the pagoda and is believed to be the only surviving wall painting from the period.
"The main hall itself is a national treasure," says Saimyoji's chief priest, Hidekatsu Nakano.