Mind Over Matter: Zen in Medieval Japan

This exhibition showcases the breadth of the museum’s medieval Zen collections, highlighting rare and striking works from Japan and China to illustrate the visual, spiritual, and philosophical power of Zen. Rooted in the culture of medieval Japan, the lessons of Zen have become an important part of contemporary American life, as applicable today as they were in premodern times.

Monastic Zen painting in medieval Japan (ca. 1200–1600) is one of the great artistic traditions of East Asia and of the world. The abbreviated, seemingly impromptu paintings in monochrome ink have influenced artists and enthusiasts for centuries. Many of the most accomplished artists of this era—Mokuan, Ryōzen, Shūbun, Sesshū, Sesson, and many others—were Zen monks credited by later generations as the creators of a unique and remarkable legacy of ink painting. Indeed, Zen monk-painters inspired a number of the most important professional painting lineages of Japan’s early modern period (ca. 1600–1868) and formed a thematic backbone of Japanese art and cultural identity in modern times.

The Freer Gallery of Art has one of the greatest collections representing this tradition anywhere in the world, and its full scope will be shown for the first time since the museum’s founding a century ago.


Mind Over Matter: Zen in Medieval Japan is part of The Arts of Devotion, a five-year initiative at the National Museum of Asian Art dedicated to furthering civic discourse and understanding of religion. This program is made possible by

Lilly Endowment Inc. A private philanthropic foundation

Generous support for this exhibition and for the museum’s Japanese art program is provided by

Mitsubishi Corporation