Artsy for Education
Resources for discovering and learning about art online

Throwback Thursday: The World’s First Novel Illustrated #tbt

Curious about the world’s first modern novel? 

Dating from the eleventh century, The Tale of Genji was written by Murasaki Shikibu, a lady of the Heian court in Japan. This 12th century unattributed handscroll depicts a scene from the tale which focused on the luxuries of court life and the personal dramas of aristocracy in Kyoto.

This scroll is considered a masterpiece of the emaki hand-scroll tradition as well as the Yamato-e style of painting, which combined highly-detailed figures and landscapes and used a blown-off roof perspective. Like all emaki, this segment was intended to be read from right to left so that the narrative and action also unfolds from right to left while the scroll is held in the viewer’s hand or laid on a flat surface. The original scroll, of which this is only a piece, was believed to have depicted all 54 chapters of Shikibu’s prose across 10 to 20 scrolls, each of which measured 40 to 50 feet in length.

Currently kept in the Tokugawa Museum in Japan, this scroll and other illustrated scrolls, are considered National Treasures of Japan and due to their fragility are only put on display for one week in November every year.  

Explore other handscrolls on Artsy and check out the University of Chicago’s impressive online scroll resources.

Share article