The beauty of human decomposition in Japanese watercolor

Kusozu: the death of a noble lady and the decay of her body, panel 6 of 9. Decomposition continues with the help of scavengers.

Kusozu: the death of a noble lady and the decay of her body, panel 6 of 9.
Decomposition continues with the help of scavengers.

I think I might be obsessed with kusozu, Japanese watercolor paintings that graphically depict human decomposition, which were popular between the 13th and 19th centuries; Body of a Courtesan in Nine Stages is another series in this genre featured previously on this site.  Kusozu works of art were inspired by Buddhist beliefs and these paintings were meant to encourage people to ponder the temporary nature of the physical world.  Kusozu watercolors also happen to be fantastic early studies of human decay and taphonomy, which is why one series, titled Kusozu: the death of a noble lady and the decay of her body, is currently on display as part of the Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime exhibit in London.

According to the Wellcome Collection, Kusozu: the death of a noble lady and the decay of her body was painted some time in the 18th century.  The below scenes include: (1) the woman’s impending death and her preparation for it; (2) the noble woman has just passed away and her loved ones are seated around her; (3) slight skin discoloration (maybe some liver mortis) and a bit of bloating of during early decomposition; (4) the onset of putrefaction with bloating and marbling; (5) advanced decomposition as seen by pervasive marbling, leakage of purge fluid from the mouth, and the abdominal cavity has burst open (6) caving of abdominal cavity and scavenging animals; (7) start of skeletonization and the disappearance of soft tissue; (8) complete skeletonization and scattering of remains; (9) finally human remains have been completely scattered or consumed by unseen animals so all that remains is a memorial for the deceased woman.

1 of 9, this  first painting depicts a court lady in a kimono is seated indoors with a scroll in her left hand, upon which she has written her farewell poem. Image credit: Wellcome Collections

Kusozu: the death of a noble lady and the decay of her body, panel 1 of 9. This first painting depicts a court lady in a kimono is seated indoors with a scroll in her left hand, upon which she has written her farewell poem. Image credit: Wellcome Collections

2 of 9: In this painting the woman has died, and is laid on the floor covered in a blanket.  Image Credit: Wellcome Collection

Kusozu: the death of a noble lady and the decay of her body, panel 2 of 9. In this painting the woman has died. She is laid on the floor covered in a blanket and is surrounded by loved ones. Image Credit: Wellcome Collection

Kusozu: the death of a noble lady and the decay of her body, panel 3 of 9. The woman's body has been laid outside and there are early signed of bloating and discoloration

Kusozu: the death of a noble lady and the decay of her body, panel 3 of 9.
The woman’s body has been laid outside and there are early signs of bloating and discoloration. Image Credit: The Wellcome Collection

Kusozu: the death of a noble lady and the decay of her body, panel 4 of 9. Putrefaction has started, liver mortis and bloating is evident.

Kusozu: the death of a noble lady and the decay of her body, panel 4 of 9. Putrefaction has started with marbling and bloating. Image Credit: The Wellcome Collection

Kusozu: the death of a noble lady and the decay of her body, panel 5 of 9. The body of the nobleman has entered an advance state of decay that shows purge fluid escaping the mouth, the abdominal cavity has burst open, and maybe signed of skin slippage.

Kusozu: the death of a noble lady and the decay of her body, panel 5 of 9.
The body of the noble woman has entered an advance state of decay that shows purge fluid escaping the mouth, the abdominal cavity has burst open, and maybe signs of skin slippage. Image Credit: The Wellcome Collection

Kusozu: the death of a noble lady and the decay of her body, panel 6 of 9. Decomposition continues with the help of scavengers.

Kusozu: the death of a noble lady and the decay of her body, panel 6 of 9.
Decomposition continues with the help of scavengers. Image credit: Wellcome Collection

Kusozu: the death of a noble lady and the decay of her body, panel 7 of 9. The body has started to skeletonize; much of the soft tissue has been removed. Image Credit: Wellcome Collection

Kusozu: the death of a noble lady and the decay of her body, panel 7 of 9.
The body has started to skeletonize; much of the soft tissue has been removed. Image Credit: Wellcome Collection

Kusozu: the death of a noble lady and the decay of her body, panel 8 of 9 The body has completely skeletonized and many of the bones have been scattered or carried away by unseen scavengers. Image Credit: Wellcome Collection

Kusozu: the death of a noble lady and the decay of her body, panel 8 of 9
The body has completely skeletonized and many of the bones have been scattered or carried away by unseen scavengers. Image Credit: Wellcome Collection

Kusozu: the death of a noble lady and the decay of her body, panel 9 of 9. In this final image the human remains are completely gone and all that remains is a memorial structure upon which the woman's Buddhist death-name is written in Sanskrit. Image Credit: Wellcome Collection

Kusozu: the death of a noble lady and the decay of her body, panel 9 of 9.
In this final image the human remains are completely gone and all that remains is a memorial structure upon which the woman’s Buddhist death-name is written in Sanskrit. Image Credit: Wellcome Collection



Categories: Art and Ephemera

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26 replies

  1. I had no idea these existed. Thank you for posting these, they are beautiful and macabre.

  2. Great post. I appreciate the reminder of each stage of death being as temporary and fleeting as each stage of life.

  3. These are fascinating, and I had not heard of them before. The contrast between the beauty of the painting and the highly stylized, but still unsettling depiction, of decomposition is truly compelling.

  4. These are amazing! Hadn’t heard of them before, but I may be a little obsessed now, too!

  5. Actually, in Buddhist tradition, there is a form of meditation on transience of the body. This meditation is to remind the monks that this body, however noble by birth, or beautiful in physical form, is highly temporary and that all attachment to this body should be abandoned to experience peace and tranquility.

    Monks usually meditate upon skulls and rotting corpses for this purpose. The decay, stink and all its associated unpleasantness are items to meditate upon.

    These water colour pictures replace actual corpses, but the purpose is the same. Meditate on death and the passing away of this body which we seem to be very much proud of, attached to and we spend all days and years trying to serve it, while forgetting the impeding death and the impermanence of life.

  6. these are very lovely, thanks for the post

  7. Meditating on the stages of decomposition by viewing an actual corpse is a very old Theravada Buddhist practice. Very interesting to know that it was practiced beyond Southeast Asia.

    • I knew about the Aghouri but didn’t realize that a similar practice was observed in Japan. But I guess what really surprised me was the crazy accurate documentation of the decomposition process.

    • Meditating on the decay of the body is also practiced in the Mahayana tradition, not just (exclusively) by Theravada. Example: Sky burial/ the feeding of body parts to vultures in Tibet and India.

  8. Thanks, I enjoyed this! I like that this process was good enough for a noble lady, and I also wonder if there was anything different done for non-noble ladies.

  9. Reblogged this on Tiffany Sumner and commented:
    I, too, am obsessed with kusozu, Japanese watercolor paintings that graphically depict human decomposition.

  10. Interesting to read/see this in conjunction with the article “This Is What Happens After You Die” at arstechnica:
    ~
    http://arstechnica.com/science/2015/05/this-is-what-happens-after-you-die/

  11. Dhammapada Verse 347: Khematheri Vatthu. “O Khema! Look carefully at this decaying body which is built around a skeleton of bones and is subject to disease and decay. Look carefully at the body which is thought of so highly by the foolish. Look at the worthlessness of the beauty of this young girl.”

  12. I had no idea something could be so beautiful and unsettling at the same time. It’s like you want to look away but can’t.

Trackbacks

  1. Stage 5: Putrefaction | The Post-Mortem Post
  2. La morte ti fa bella [EN]
  3. The beauty of human decomposition in Japanese watercolor | Catharsis Time
  4. Ending Of A Bending | Sinderella's Cartoon Blog
  5. The beauty of human decomposition in Japanese watercolor | sideshowtog
  6. Underlinings (#55) | Time Spiral Press

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