Native to Japan, Shintoism is a popular, animistic religion that focuses on honoring the kami (benign spiritual forces) believed to exist within all natural phenomena. More than eight million kami comprise the Shinto pantheon, which is ruled over by Amaterasu, the sun goddess, who, according to tradition, was a direct ancestor of the imperial family as well as of the people of Japan. This aspect and the Japanese intrinsic love of nature bolstered the popularity of Shintoism among the general populace as well as the imperial family. For a time, Shintoism was the official state religion of Japan.
Originally, Shintoists worshipped outdoors, in places where kami are believed to reside. In particular, sites and objects of sublime beauty—especially rivers, mountains, rock formations, and trees—are considered manifestations of divine spirits, and worshippers regard them with special accord. Over time, large and small shrines, often incorporating large, round mirrors, were built to honor and house the kami. As kami are never represented in anthropomorphic form, the Japanese love of nature drew upon a rich trove of stylized and symbolic motifs to decorate the shrines, buildings, and gardens of Japan. As organic but ordered enclosures representing a microcosm of the natural world, gardens especially appealed to the Shinto belief in reaching a balance and a harmony with the natural world.
The streamlined design of this lantern is derived from that of the lanterns traditionally donated to the Shinto Kasuga Shrine in Nara. Crafted entirely of solid granite, the lantern has a circular base incised with stylized lotus petals. The weight-bearing, central support column is ornamented with horizontal bands in raised relief. To frame the lantern’s two unadorned, rectangular light apertures, the exterior of the recessed, hexagonal central chamber is sculpted in raised relief with a scene of the sacred deer of Nara. The eaved roof, with its ornately embellished, upturned corners, is surmounted by a gem-shaped finial in the traditional style of Japanese architecture. As a common fixture of Japanese garden design, with evocative Shinto imagery, lanterns of this type were made in vast quantities during the Edo period (1615–1868) for display in both religious and secular settings.