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Dragon and Phoenix: symbols of an empire

Symbols of power, nobility, and imperial legitimacy, the dragon and phoenix occupy a prominent place in Japanese culture and art. 

In this new article we will explore these two mythical creatures associated with the Emperor and Empress, respectively. We will then reveal their importance, significance and iconographic role in the context of Japan’s imperial sovereignty. 

The dragon:symbol of the Emperor

A profound connection that between the majestic mythological figure of the dragon and Japanese culture and history. So much so that it is the subject of numerous artifacts and varied art forms. 

In Japanese mythology, this legendary figure is considered a symbol of strength, wisdom and good luck. Considered divine creatures, popular belief identifies dragons as entities that can protect the nation by contributing to its prosperity. 

A power that would derive from the strong connection these figures have with nature and the spiritual world. Indeed, their presence has often been associated with natural elements, such as the sea, rivers and mountains. 

And what important figure could have adopted it as a symbol of power and sacredness if not the Emperor? Indeed, in Japanese tradition, the Emperor is often described as a direct descendant of the gods and the rightful holder of the throne. It would therefore be the dragon that would represent such divine descent. With its symbolism of power, wisdom and protective capacity, it fully represents the characteristics of the one who leads the country. 

The dragon in art

Japanese art has depicted the dragon in a variety of forms and styles, capturing its mysterious and powerful spirit. 

In ancient ukiyo-e prints it was often depicted serpentiformly swaying with winding movements among clouds and water. The bright colors and dynamic lines emphasized its movement and its harmonious connection with the natural elements.

Dragon
Fully articulated boxwood dragon sold by our gallery. Private Italian collection.

In Buddhist art it was sometimes depicted as a serpentine creature surrounding, protecting, deities or monasteries. Its presence was, in fact, a symbol of protection and spiritual inspiration.

We find, in Japanese art, many sculptural works depicting the mythical creature often used as decorations for temples, shrines and other sacred places. The dragons, rich in accurate and intricate detail, were depicted in their typical enveloping form. This gave them a special charm that provoked a sense of grandeur and mysticism.

Pair of bronze vases signed Nogawa company

The Phoenix: symbol of the Empress

Just like the dragon, the phoenix, known as “Houou,” is also closely linked to Japanese mythological tradition. It is again a mythical figure shrouded in an aura of fascination and mystery.

Silk tapestry depicting a Phoenix in flight

A symbol of good fortune and divine wisdom, the phoenix is believed to appear only in times of peace and prosperity bringing with it a message of hope and rebirth.  

In Japanese culture it also represents the goddess Amaterasu. A sun deity whose presence evokes the vital energy of the sun itself. In addition, Amaterasu is, according to Japanese mythology, the progenitor of the imperial family. Hence the connection between the phoenix, which precisely represents the sun goddess, and the Emperor’s companion. 

The presence of the phoenix in artistic artifacts thus evokes divine protection over the Empress, reflecting her role as guardian of the royal lineage.

A central element of this mythical figure in Japanese art is the concept of rebirth. Indeed, legend has it that when the phoenix grows old it is set on fire and rises to new life from its own ashes. A symbolic reminder of the eternal cycle of life and death. This symbolism has led her to be a figure of great significance in Japanese culture, associating her with moments of transformation and new beginnings.

The phoenix in art

Like the dragon, the phoenix has also been the subject of artistic depictions in multiple forms. Each captures a different aspect of its symbolism. 

In ancient ukiyo-e prints she was often portrayed with regal elegance and nobility, surrounded by floral backgrounds and magical atmospheres. To emphasize her grace and charming beauty, artists resorted to vibrant colors and intricate details. Her feathers appeared so flamboyant and resplendent.

In pottery and textile art she often appeared as a decorative motif. Its ornate and elegant feathers embellished vases, textiles and other artifacts. 

These representations were valued both for their aesthetic value and for the symbolic reference to protection and good fortune.

Satsuma dish depicting a phoenix signed Shozan

The dragon and the phoenix: a symbolic union 

The joint presence of the dragon and phoenix in Japanese art and culture also reflects the balanced union between the Emperor and Empress. 

Their symbolic union represents the harmony between male and female power. The complementarity of their strengths and the maintenance of the nation’s stability and prosperity.

The importance of this union, which symbolizes harmonious leadership for for Japan, has been celebrated in a number of artworks depicting both figures together. The typical image of the dragon and phoenix dancing above the Imperial Palace is one example.