[Large ema in Kitano Tenmangu. Photo Ad Blankestijn]
The colorful tablets have a long and rich history. The name "ema" means picture (e) of a horse (ma) - these votive pictures evolved as substitutes for the live horses traditionally donated by powerful parishioners to prestigious Shinto shrines. Although the custom is many centuries older (probably dating back to the Nara period, 8th c.), the earliest ema that can be reliably dated go back only to the end the 14th century.
A century later, we find a vigorous folk art and two types of ema have evolved:
- works of small size offered by ordinary people as an entreaty to a deity for help or in fulfillment of a vow; here, the picture is always related to the wish or problem in question, for example a nursing mother might donate a picture of a woman squirting milk from her full breasts; the ox symbolized success in business, tigers were believed to prevent cholera and dogs meant an easy birth; those pictures were painted by emashi (ema painters) and hawked at crossroads.
- large works executed on commission by professional artists usually displayed in a separate open gallery called "emado" in temples or shrines. Here, horses remained a favorite subject, but we also find scenes from famous legends and the exploits of warriors.
[Faded ema in Daruma Temple (Horinji). Photo Ad Blankestijn]
You will find some good examples of gorgeous ema in the Annex of the Narita Reikokan Museum, or in the museum of Zenkoji temple. Kitano Tenmangu in Kyoto also has a large emado; another good place in Kyoto is the Konpira Ema Museum.