A 23-foot painting in Boston may be art’s truest depiction of battle

The Japanese scroll ‘Night Attack on the Sanjo Palace’ masterfully shows the anarchy of war

Real violence — not the movie kind — is terrible and precipitous. It sweeps all before it, leaving chaos in its wake. A trifling example, but I remember seeing a brawl break out in a crowded pool room. A man had smashed a glass and thrust it at someone’s face, causing blood to spatter onto the green baize. Within seconds, about 10 men had surrounded the combatants. Some tried to pry them apart, but others threw sickening punches at people’s heads or brandished pool cues with stunning force. What was seared into my memory was less these details than the terrifying impression made by a mass of bodies accelerating along the edge of the pool table toward me.

Western art’s most famous images of war describe the brutality of the fall of Troy or the Peninsula War or the devastation of World War I. But the most celebrated Japanese battle scene — and arguably the most famous work of Japanese art outside of Japan — is “Night Attack on the Sanjo Palace,” a scroll made by unknown artists in the third quarter of the 13th century.

Because it is fragile, this masterpiece — ink and color applied to a length of paper 23-feet wide and just 16¼ inches high — spends most of the time in storage at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. I was lucky to see it when it toured Japan in 2013, and I’ll never forget it.

“Night Attack” describes an incident that took place during the Heiji Rebellion, a much written about phase of the civil wars between two clans, the Taira and the Minamoto. One December night in 1159, the combined forces of Fujiwara Nobuyori and Minamoto Yoshitomo attempted a coup. On a flimsy pretext (Nobuyori alleged that he had discovered a plot against his life), they stormed the Sanjo Palace with several hundred mounted warriors, abducting the retired (but still powerful) emperor Go-Shirakawa and his young sister.

The full story, told in “Heiji monogatari” (“Tale of the Disturbance at Heiji”), is complicated, and this scroll is just one of 15 narrative depictions of the broader conflict. Only three survive. But “Night Attack,” the first in the series, holds enough drama to sustain a lifetime’s interest.

The scroll is designed to be held in the hands and unrolled sequentially like a comic strip, but moving from right to left. In fact, such is the power of “Night Attack” that it almost appears animated. It’s hard to stop your eyes darting from one detail to the next, and you’re involuntarily swept up in the atmosphere of emergency.

The opening section, at far right, shows a crowd of courtiers and city residents rushing toward the palace, desperate to find out what has happened. It’s a brilliant conceit: From the start, we are placed in the same position as the adrenalized crowd.

In the next section, we see the attackers inside the palace walls jostling the emperor and his sister into an ox-drawn carriage. Further to their left, we see that the palace is on fire. The mountainous flames are speckled with orange dots — flying cinders; the rolling smoke is thick and black.

The attackers are not only torching the palace, but ripping the clothes off women and shooting with arrows or hacking to death everyone who tries to escape. One man’s throat is being slit by a warrior whose helmeted head is not human but animal (Francisco Goya would have admired this touch). Nearby, women are jumping into a well to escape rape and death. The Japanese text introducing the scroll at far right describes how those at the bottom of the well drowned, those in the middle suffocated and those at the top burned to death. In the final sections we see the warriors making off with the abducted emperor.

On one hand, the whole thing is lucid and legible: Humans and horses are individuated, not blurred together. At the same time, there’s an astonishing volatility to every part of the picture, from the rushing crowd to the roiling flames, the charging horses and the massed warriors with their bows jutting out of the fray at various angles.

The whole thing expresses an awareness of transience and precariousness (such things can happen in an instant, to your home, to an imperial palace, to the U.S. Capitol) that aligns with the precepts of Zen Buddhism, then burgeoning in Japan. The action swarms and surges, but it’s not intended to titillate. It’s heavy and terrible and you are made to understand that the upshot, when the chaos has rolled through, will be smoking ruins, hideous pain, inconsolable grief.

Night Attack on the Sanjo Palace, 13th century
Illustrated Scrolls of the Events of the Heiji Era. At Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Great Works, In Focus

A series featuring art critic Sebastian Smee’s favorite works in permanent collections around the United States. “They are things that move me. Part of the fun is trying to figure out why.”

Photo editing and research by Kelsey Ables. Design and development by Joanne Lee, Leo Dominguez and Junne Alcantara.

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Sebastian Smee is a Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic at The Washington Post and the author of “The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals and Breakthroughs in Modern Art." He has worked at the Boston Globe, and in London and Sydney for the Daily Telegraph (U.K.), the Guardian, the Spectator, and the Sydney Morning Herald.