Among the recent acquisitions of Japanese art currently on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (through fall 2008, in galleries 241, 242, and 243 on the second floor) is this lovely deer mandala. The deer was regarded as a sacred animal messenger of the Shinto deities. I suppose that the background depicts Mt. Mikasa, the sanctuary of Kasuga Shinto shrine; deer were visual embodiments of the shrine, and conical mountains were sometimes regarded as sanctuaries for deities.
Shintoism (literally, “the way of the gods”) is the indigenous religion of Japan. Its core premise is that deities inhabit all natural things. A scroll such as this would probably have been commissioned by priests for a temple, and used as an aid to meditation.
Deer Mandala, 17th century. Japan, Edo Period (1615-1868). Colors on silk; mounted as a hanging scroll, 35 7/8 x 15 3/8 inches (91.2 x 39 cm) Mount: 62 13/16 x 20 1/8 inches (159.5 x 51.1 cm). Purchased with the Hollis Fund for East Asian Art Acquisitions, the J. Stogdell Stokes Fund, and the George W.B. Taylor Fund, 2005-145-1.