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Juran – Buddhist Priest Landscape Painter

    Juran is one of the early greats of Song dynasty landscape painting. 

    He is seen as one of the two founding fathers of the Jiangnan style of landscape painting.

    (The other is his mentor, the Southern Tang court painter and minor official Dong Yuan).

    The startlingly ethereal scenes he painted inspired centuries of Chinese painters.

    Distant Mountain Forests by Juran
    Distant Mountain Forests (ca. 980) by Juran, hanging scroll, ink on silk, 144.1 x 55.4 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image Source: Wikipedia Commons)

    Brief Biography

    Juran (active ca. 960 – 985 AD) (巨然 [Jùrán]) was a painter and Buddhist priest who lived Five dynasties and Ten Kingdom period (907 – 979 AD) and early Song dynasty (960 – 1279 AD).

    Not a lot is known about Juran’s life. This is likely in part due to the turbulent times he lived in and his ascetic religious lifestyle.

    He is said to have originally been from Jiangning (today a district of Nanjing, Jiangsu Province). This was the capital city of the short-lived Southern Tang dynasty (937 – 975 AD).

    Seeking the Dao in Autumn Mountains by Juran
    Seeking the Dao in Autumn Mountains (ca. 980) by Juran, hanging scroll, 156.2 x 77.2 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image Source: Wikipedia Commons)

    When the Southern Tang fell to the Song dynasty, many in its court moved to the latter’s capital, Kaifeng (in Henan Province). This included court artists such as Juran, who relocated to the Kaibao Temple.

    According to the Xuanhe Catalogue of Paintings, a collection of biographies and listings of paintings written in 1120, Juran was famous for his painting during his lifetime.

    And we know from this catalogue and many other writings, that his fame continued to grow long after his death.

    Juran’s landscape paintings

    Jiangnan landscape paintings

    Buddhist Retreat by Stream and Mountain by Juran
    Buddhist Retreat by Stream and Mountain (ca. 980) by Juran, hanging scroll, ink on silk, 185. 4 x 57.5 cm. Cleveland Museum of Art. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    Only three paintings attributed to Juran exist today. So, as with so many other early Chinese painters, writings on their work also need to be considered when evaluating them.

    Just over century after Juran’s life, a catalogue documenting the royal storehouse’s collection of paintings was published: the Xuanhe Catalogue of Paintings 

    (The sitting emperor at the time, Huizong (r. 1100 – 1125 AD), has been remembered for centuries for being more interested in art than politics…)

    The Catalogue describes Juran’s paintings in positive terms:

    毎下笔乃如文人才士,就题赋咏,词源衮衮,出于毫端。
    Each time he put his brush to paper, it was like a talented literary gentleman composing poetic forms, where words energetically emerge from the tops of their brushes.

    Xuanhe Catalogue of Paintings

    It also lists thirty-six of his works in the imperial storehouses and details the elements of his paintings:

    巨然山水于峰峦岭窦之外,下至林麓之间,犹作卵石,松柏疏筠蔓草之类,相与映发,而幽溪细路,屈曲萦带,竹篱茅舍,断桥危栈,真若山间景趣也。
    Besides mountain peaks, ranges, and ridges, Juran’s landscape paintings also descended down to the forests and foothills. Here, they contain boulders, pine and cypress trees, as well as different types of bamboo, vines, and grass. These all complement one another and his tranquil streams, winding roads, tangled fences, thatched cottages, broken bridges and dangerous pathways – the real and interesting mountain scenes.

    Xuanhe Catalogue of Paintings

    Shortly before the Catalogue was published, the Song dynasty writer Chao Buzhi (1053 – 1100 AD) wrote of Juran:

    翰林沈存中笔谈云:僧巨然画,近视之几不成物象,远视之则晦明向背,意趣皆得。The Hanlin Academician Shen Cunzhong wrote in Brush Discussions: In the monk Juran’s paintings, what’s nearby seems formless and what’s far away is dark, light, in front and behind – the essence has all been captured.

    – Chao Buzhi