[ Content | Sidebar ]

An Exhibition of My Collection of Rustic Ko Ema at The Douglas Hyde Gallery, Trinity College, Dublin

Written on September 30, 2013


I am thrilled to be showing my collection of 73 ko ema or small, rustic Shinto-Japanese votive paintings at The Douglas Hyde Gallery at Trinity College in Dublin.  The Douglas Hyde Gallery runs a program of world-class contemporary art exhibitions, and I am honored that this exhibition is my second at this esteemed gallery.  The first show, in fall 2009, was a selection from my collection of Japanese folk textiles.

VotiveShowBlog1I am particularly happy about this exhibition because I am especially fond of my collection of ko ema or small, rustic votive plaques which date to the early-to-mid 20th century.  Ko ema are not easily found, and amassing a group this large and diverse was a challenge.  I am grateful to the gallery’s director, John Hutchinson, for sharing my enthusiasm for this material and for offering to produce a full-scale exhibition.

VotiveShowBlog1jThe word ema means, literally, “picture horse.”  The reason for this is that in centuries past horses were offered as gifts by the faithful to Shinto shrines.  As this practice was a serious and often unattainable one for many, giving painted images of horses became popular.


Here we see many non-horse images.  Ema are used as petitions for prayers to be answered, or in thanks for a prayer which was answered. Each of the images on these ema represents a personal request from an individual, and the images relate to the nature of the request.

VotiveShowBlog1cAn ema showing eyes is asking for help with a malady of the eyes; an ema showing hands is similar.  An ema showing legs represents a petition for help with gynecological or sexual problems.

VotiveShowBlog1dSome ema offered to shrines by wealthy patrons are of large size and are elaborately painted, showing battle scenes or ships at sea, for example. Ko ema such as these are small and quickly painted.  Each measures about 5″ x 8″ or 13 cm x 20 cm, give or take.  These were painted by itinerant artisans who sold these plaques to those visiting a Shinto shrine.

VotiveShowBlog1fThose of you who have visited Japan and have gone to temples or shrines have seen multitudinous layers of ema hanging outside a shrine. I imagine the ko ema in this exhibition once were hanging in similar way.


VotiveShowBlog1gAlthough this collection is set, I am still on the hunt for more ema, particularly those that depict subject matter not included in this collection. This will take some time, patience, and the help of friends in Japan.





Comments closed

  1. Comment by Marianna:

    I cannot tell you how much your last two posts have become inspiration for me. Up ’til now I had never heard of ko ema before this moment. I love the shapes, the meaning and the rustic quality…..I also LOVE my memories of visiting Trinity College…..the Long Room is one of my favorite places on earth. What an honor and a pleasure for those who receive the experience of your collection. Thank you for sharing it with us.

    September 30, 2013 @ 12:06 pm

  2. Comment by Stephen:

    Thank you, Marianna, for such a wonderful comment. I am so pleased you enjoy what I do!

    September 30, 2013 @ 12:08 pm

  3. Comment by liane:

    these are achingly beautiful to me. you probably don’t sell any in your shop?

    October 7, 2013 @ 3:24 pm

  4. Comment by Stephen:

    Thank you Liane. I’m glad you like these ema. Yes, I will not be offering these for sale as they are my own collection…

    October 7, 2013 @ 5:25 pm

  5. Comment by Mora:

    Stephen, I so enjoyed the ko ema photos. Your collection is breath taking. You are fortunate to be able to travel and collect amazing pieces of art. I’m envious of it all. 🙂

    October 16, 2013 @ 6:03 pm

  6. Comment by ken:

    Hi, I was in Dublin teaching a textile design workshop at NCAD a few weeks ago and happened upon this exhibition which was really wonderful and one of the high points of my visit. I have been following you blog for some time and didn’t realize that the collection belonged to you. The world is a small place. Thanks for sharing this great collection with the rest of us.

    October 19, 2013 @ 8:41 am

  7. Comment by Romayne Cox:

    These are so wonderful. I have never seen the before. they reminded me of mexicanretablos but different imagery.They are so powerful as a group.

    October 25, 2013 @ 11:20 am

  8. Comment by Ciara:

    As we passed by Trinity the other night, my husband mentioned there was a show on there that I would love, and we were going to stop in, but we found out it was finished so we kept going. I didn’t know it when I just randomly came across it on Pinterest, but it was this show, and I am complete blown away by it. And also completely gutted to have just missed seeing it in Dublin. Amazingly beautiful. Thank you for sharing.

    November 20, 2013 @ 7:29 pm

  9. Comment by Stephen:

    Dear Ciara, I’m sorry you missed the show–and I wish I had been able to see it, too. Thank you for your very nice words! Regards, Stephen

    November 21, 2013 @ 12:30 pm

  10. Comment by Richard:

    I love the plaque with the white horse and blue background. The colours are amazing. The depiction of Mt. Fuji is cool too. The ones you see in temples today look so un-creative. Great blog, makes me want to go back to Japan.

    December 16, 2013 @ 11:01 am