Thursday April 4, 2019
Tags for: The Cleveland Museum of Art Presents Special Exhibition Shinto: Discovery of the Divine in Japanese Art
  • Press Release

The Cleveland Museum of Art Presents Special Exhibition Shinto: Discovery of the Divine in Japanese Art

exterior of the CMA building

Exclusively in Cleveland: rarely seen Japanese treasures offer encounters with the divine


Seated Tenjin, 1259. Kamakura period (1185–1333). Wood with color; 94.9 x 101.5 x 68.8 cm. Yoki Tenman Jinja, Sakurai, Nara Prefecture. Important Cultural Property. Photo: Nara National Museum (on view April 9–May 19)

Cleveland, OH (April 4, 2019)—A major international loan exhibition of great importance, Shinto: Discovery of the Divine in Japanese Art presents artworks of Shinto, Japan’s unique belief system focused on the veneration of divine phenomena called kami. Organized by the Cleveland Museum of Art, with the special cooperation of the Nara National Museum, the exhibition presents about 125 works in different media—calligraphy, painting, sculpture, costume and decorative arts—assembled from Japanese and American museums, shrines and Buddhist temples.

The exhibition features artworks that are an expression of the everyday engagement of people with divinities in their midst. The exhibition includes treasures never before seen outside Japan and a significant number of works designated as Important Cultural Properties by the Japanese government. Works designated as Important Cultural Properties may be shown for no more than several weeks each year to balance accessibility with the preservation of the artwork. 

Because of this and the light-sensitivity of other works on view, the exhibition will have two rotations: April 9–May 19 and May 23–June 30, 2019. Approximately half of the works on view during the first rotation will be replaced with entirely new works for the second rotation.

Shinto: Discovery of the Divine in Japanese Art is an extremely important international loan show and a project many years in the making,” said William Griswold, director of the Cleveland Museum of Art. “On view exclusively in Cleveland, visitors will have an unpreceded opportunity to view rarely seen treasures. We are grateful to all our collaborating institutions for their generosity in making these major loans, and we look forward to sharing the art of the Shinto religion with our global audience.” 

For a complete list of collaborating institutions, please see here.

Shinto means “Way of the Gods.” Although Shinto was officially established in the late 19th century, there is a long tradition of venerating kami in Japan. Shinto: Discovery of the Divine in Japanese Art focuses on that tradition from the 10th to 19th centuries.

“Kami veneration has been a central feature of Japanese culture and the inspiration behind a broad range of Japanese art for centuries,” said Sinéad Vilbar, the exhibition’s curator and curator of Japanese art at the CMA. “The exhibition explores the worship of kami and Buddhist divinities and celebrates the religious art ignited by their fusion. As a curator, this is a dream come true—to bring works of this caliber and importance to Cleveland and to introduce new audiences to some of the finest treasures of Japan.”

The earliest written histories in Japan describe kami as being creators of the islands of Japan and descending from the heavens to rule the land. Kami were responsible for all manner of tasks, from managing natural resources to protecting against disease, and they only descended to earth to special places in nature such as mountains, forests and waterfalls. 

After the arrival of Buddhism from continental Asia in the mid-sixth century, people began building shrines (jinja) for kami in emulation of the construction of temples dedicated to Buddhist deities. In the mid-eighth to mid-ninth centuries, it was believed that kami were avatars of Buddhist deities, and as a result many kami were assigned Buddhist counterparts; kami and Buddhist deities were worshipped side-by-side. This idea was widespread by the mid-11th century and continued to inform the perceived relationships between kami and Buddhist deities into the 19th century. However, kami remained distinct from Buddhist deities and were worshipped in different ways through entertainment, festivals and offerings. While the Buddhas and bodhisattvas of Buddhism are enlightened beings with virtues seen as out of reach for most humans, kami are more like people. They can exhibit generosity and cleverness, as well as pettiness and foolishness. Like nature, they can deliver great bounty, or be the source of tremendous devastation. 

Shinto: Discovery of the Divine in Japanese Art is organized into six thematic sections that explore centuries of engagement with kami and Buddhist divinities. 

Entertaining the Gods delves into performing arts and sport competitions held at shrines during  festivals to entertain and appeal to the resident kami, including sculptures depicting sumo wrestlers and mounted archery, screens painted with scenes of horse racing and costumes used in performances of gagaku (traditional court music), bugaku (traditional court dance) and (masked drama).

Gods and Great Houses explores the historical relationship of kami veneration to powerful families and individuals of Japan’s elites, including dual focuses on Kasuga Taisha in Nara, the protecting shrine of the powerful Fujiwara family of the Heian period (794–1185) court, and shrines devoted to Tenjin, the deified form of ninth-century courtier Sugawara no Michizane.

Gods Embodied introduces the strong sculptural tradition associated with kami veneration. Kami are invited to reside in wood sculptures. The sculptures are often painted and may have special features such as sacred objects hidden inside. These sculptures are housed in shrine halls and are not visible to visitors. Visitors ring a bell to alert the deity to their arrival. This section features works that still belong to shrines and are rarely seen in public.

Moving with the Gods addresses festivals and pilgrimage. Many shrines are located within awe-inspiring natural environments and involve pilgrimage routes to and processional routes from these sacred destinations. Glorious screens depict the Hie-Sannō and Gion shrine festivals, as well as celebrations at Kitano Tenmangū and Yoshino, while large hanging scrolls show travelers making their way to the Kumano and Ise shrines.

Combinations: Kami and Buddhist Deities clarifies the unique mingling of kami veneration with Buddhist religious traditions by considering topics such as star worship, mountain asceticism, Pure Land Buddhist incorporation of kami and the diversity of matching kami with Buddhist deities at various shrines. It also investigates the complex topic of shinbutsu shūgō (the matching of kami with Buddhist deities). 

Gifts for the Gods features examples of gifts given to the kami. Some objects are given to kami in gratitude for assistance or in requesting help. Other gifts include the objects a kami needs for daily life, such as clothing, cosmetics and writing tools. Gifts are presented when a shrine is reconstructed or refurbished as part of a renewal of the kami’s spirit.


Adults $10; seniors and college students $8; adult group rate $7; children 6–17 and member guests $5; children 5 and under and CMA members free.

Groups of 10 or more may secure tickets at the discounted rate of $7 per adult. Call the ticket center at 216-421-7350 or email for more information.

Nonmember tickets purchased during the first rotation (April 9–May 19) can be redeemed to view the second rotation for free starting on May 23, 2019. Ticket holders should present their original tickets or use an order confirmation receipt to redeem them on-site.

The museum recommends reserving tickets online by visiting Tickets can also be reserved by phone at 216-421-7350 or at the museum’s ticket center. 

Become a Member

See both rotations free when you become a CMA member. Members are admitted free to most special exhibitions. They can also take advantage of other special discounts and exclusive events happening throughout the year. 


Exhibition Visitor Response Station

Two important aspects of visits to Shinto shrines are requests for help from the kami and expressions of thanks for their perceived assistance. At the end of the exhibition, visitors will have an opportunity to consider and share their own thoughts on aspirations and gratitude at the response station.

Special Exhibition Tours 

Wednesday, April 17–Sunday, June 23

Wednesday and Thursday, 11:00 a.m., and Saturday and Sunday, 2:00 p.m. 

Join CMA volunteer docents for tours of Shinto: Discovery of the Divine in Japanese Art. Tours are limited to 25 participants and depart from the information desk in the atrium. Exhibition ticket fee; CMA members free. Register online or by calling the ticket center at 216-421-7350.

Pop-Out Open Studio 

Thursday, April 25, 1:00–4:00 p.m., Free

Drop in to the Ames Family Atrium for three special open studios. Art activities will be inspired by Shinto: Discovery of the Divine in Japanese Art.

Curator Talks: Into the Sacred Forest: A Journey through Shinto Art

Led by curator of Japanese Art, Sinéad Vilbar, learn about Japan’s “Way of the Kami” in this series of gallery talks on Shinto: Discovery of the Divine in Japanese Art. Find out who the kami are, how they are worshipped and the many kinds of artistic creations they have inspired. Exhibition ticket fee; CMA members free. Register online or by calling the ticket center at 216-421-7350.

  • Tuesday, April 9, noon, and Wednesday, April 10, 6:00 p.m.: Sumo, Yabusame and Bugaku: Sports and Dance in Shinto
  • Tuesdays, May 7 and 14, noon: Combinations: Kami and Buddhas
  • Wednesday, June 12, 6:00 p.m., and Tuesday, June 18, noon: Wisteria, Plum and Pigeon: Shrine Motifs

Tsukushi Mai

Ames Family Atrium, FREE

Tuesday, April 9, 11:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m.

Celebrate the opening of Shinto: Discovery of the Divine in Japanese Art with the ancient performing art of Tsukushi Mai presented by Miyajidake Jinja Shrine. Tsukushi Mai is one of the oldest performing arts, which draws influence from cultures throughout the Middle East, India, and China. Miyajidake Jinja Shrine will show the cultural significance of this ancestral performance in which prayer to the Shinto kami of the natural world encapsulates the human relationship to land and the lifecycles of Earth.

Cherry Blossom Picnics

Sundays, April 14 and 28, 11:00 a.m.–2:00 p.m., free

Fine Arts Garden

In celebration of Shinto: Discovery of the Divine in Japanese Art, gather with friends and family in the museum’s Fine Arts Garden to appreciate the fleeting, stunning beauty of Japan’s unofficial flower, the cherry blossom. Known for their short, two-week bloom, cherry blossom trees symbolize the impermanence of beauty and the notion that nothing lasts forever. O-hanami (cherry blossom viewing) in Japan often involves a picnic party beneath the trees to celebrate the start of spring-like weather. Commemorate the season and plan a picnic or potluck, or purchase traditional Japanese fare. 

Arrive early to claim your spot beneath the cherry blossom trees with your blanket. Programming will include music, guided walks through the garden and pop-up art activities. Free exhibition tickets will be given away to picnickers wearing white or pink.

MIX: Matsuri

Friday, May 3, 6:00–10:00 p.m.

Japanese for festival, there are countless matsuri in Japan. Over the centuries, matsuri have become part of popular culture, drawing tens of thousands of attendees and providing a vital force for community cohesion. Matsuri often involve dancing, music performances or an artistic competition. On this night, celebrate traditional and contemporary Japanese culture, with taiko drumming, sake-infused cocktails and a fusion of J-Pop (Japanese pop) music and beyond. 

The Living Land: Kami and Sacred Places in the [Medieval] Japanese Imagination

Wednesday, May 29, 6:00 p.m., Free

Recital Hall

A central feature of Japanese culture for many centuries, the veneration of kami deities—a practice often referred to as Shinto—has been a driving force behind a broad range of visual art. This vividly illustrated lecture by scholar Kevin Gray Carr will explore the significance of painting, sculpture, architecture and the decorative arts within kami veneration traditions. The talk will consider how the sacred was imagined and made visible in premodern Japan, especially at sites thought to be points of possible connection with the divine.  

Kevin Gray Carr is associate professor in the History of Art Department at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where he teaches all aspects of the history of Japanese art and archaeology. He is the co-author of the exhibition catalogue Shinto: Discovery of the Divine in Japanese Art. Free, ticket required. 

ArtLens App Tour

Visitors are invited to extend their exhibition experience in the collection galleries with a thematic app tour.   

For more information on using the ArtLens App, visit ArtLens is free to download to iPads or iPhones running iOS9 or higher or to an Android device (4.4+) from the iTunes App Store or Google Play.


Anime in May! Family Film Series

Morley Lecture Hall, and the Fine Arts Garden


Discover Shinto’s presence in contemporary Japanese popular culture through this family-friendly, animated film series. Director Hayao Miyazaki’s work has earned a devoted international following. See three classic Miyazaki films with fresh eyes as you look for Shinto themes and motifs featured in his storylines. Finally, enjoy an adaptation of the Shinto storm-god Susanoo’s story as presented in Toei Animation’s 1963 film, The Little Prince and the Eight-headed Dragon. This stylistically influential film directed by Yugo Serikawa will be screened outdoors in the CMA’s fine arts garden. 

  • Saturday, May 4 at 1pm: Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro
  • Saturday, May 11 at 1pm: Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo
  • Saturday, May 18 at 1pm: Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away
  • Friday, May 31 at 8:00pm: Yugo Serikawa’s The Little Prince and the Eight-headed Dragon


Conveying the impressive range and beauty of art associated with the tradition of kami veneration in Japan, Shinto: Discovery of the Divine in Japanese Art presents some 125 works in different media—calligraphy, painting, sculpture, costume, and decorative arts—assembled from religious institutions and museums in Japan, as well as from collections in the United States. Kami veneration, a practice often referred to as Shinto in modern sources, is unique to Japan, although a number of its components stem from court and religious rituals in neighboring countries. Accompanying the exhibition, this catalogue, published by the Cleveland Museum of Art and distributed by Yale University Press, will be the first in any language to bring together related works from both Japan and the United States and to be authored collaboratively by top scholars from both countries. 

Authors include: Dr. Sinéad Vilbar, curator of Japanese art, the Cleveland Museum of Art; Kevin Carr, associate professor, Department of the History of Art, University of Michigan; Iwata Shigeki, special research chair, Taniguchi Kōsei, curator of painting; and Shimizu Ken, curator of decorative arts, Nara National Museum, Japan. 

Shinto: Discovery of the Divine in Japanese Art can be purchased at the Cleveland Museum of Art’s store for $75 (hardcover). 

Shinto: Discovery of the Divine in Japanese Art is organized by the Cleveland Museum of Art with the special cooperation of the Nara National Museum.

The Cleveland Museum of Art gratefully acknowledges:

Presenting Sponsors

Dr. Hiroyuki and Mrs. Mikiko Fujita

Quality Electrodynamics

E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation

Supporting Sponsors

Art Works | National Endowment for the Arts

This exhibition was organized by the Cleveland Museum of Art, with the special support of the Japan Foundation as part of Japan 2019, a series of events highlighting Japanese arts and culture in the United States throughout 2019.

Japan 2019

Japan Foundation

Japan–United States Friendship Commission 

Kenneth S. and Deborah G. Cohen

John D. Proctor Foundation

Thomas & Beatrice Taplin Fund

Additional Support

Blakemore Foundation

Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Endowment Fund

Iwashimizu Hachimangū Jinja

Samukawa Jinja  

Miyajidake Jinja

Contact the Museum's Media Relations Team:
(216) 707-2261