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The Tenshin-En at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts

Garden correspondent Lee May took a tour of the MFA's Tenshin-En, a garden of refreshing serenity, and a living work of art.

The Tenshin-En Rock Garden
The carefully placed rocks of the Tenshin-En garden create a sense of stability and calm.

For visitors who stroll the many vaulted rooms and corridors, admiring the varied collection of Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, there is a special treat for the senses, unlike anything else the museum offers: Tenshin-En, a 10,000-square-foot Japanese rock garden.

Named in honor of Okakura Tenshin, an esteemed former curator of the museum's vast Asiatic art collection, Tenshin-En means "Garden of the Heart of Heaven." This contemplative space was created in the karesansui style, drawing on a combination of elements from Japan as well as New England, reinterpreting the ancient art form of the Zen temple gardens of 15th-century Japan.

Rock Island
A 50-pound rake is used to create the sea's sinuous parallel currents and the eddies that encircle the rock-islands.

Museum-goers enter through the Tenshin-En's roofed gate, which was built in Kyoto and reconstructed at the garden by carpenters from Japan. The wall surrounding the garden is a modern version of a Japanese mud-and-twig wall, capped with baked clay roof tiles imported from Kyoto. A curved path leads visitors to a terrace, where they can wash their hands at the water basin. Within the garden, raked, crushed-granite gravel represents a vast body of water. More than 150 boulders — some weighing as much as 8 tons — from Boston's North Shore were placed using ancient methods to create landforms within the garden.

Gardener and a Low Pine
A gardener prunes the branches of this low pine tree to contain its growth to the proper scale of the garden.

A "dry waterfall" of rounded black stones running down the face of a hill represents Mount Sumeru, a mythic mountain that was thought to be the center of the universe. The two central rock groupings symbolize two mythical isles said to bring immortality and prosperity to those who viewed them. Three arched granite bridges link the islands to the "mainland" and guide the visitor's eye through the garden.

Okakura Tenshin
Okakura Tenshin, one of the MFA's first curators of Asiatic art, and namesake of the garden.

More than 70 species of plants — both Japanese and American — give color and texture to the garden. Cherries, Japanese maples and pine trees are all signature plants of a Japanese garden and evoke the changing seasons. Mountain laurels provide fragrance, low manicured pine trees lend a harmonious scale, and enkianthus shrubs, with their tiny lantern-like blossoms, are employed as a hedgerow. Azaleas of many colors and varieties provide continuous bloom from spring into summer and combine with haircap moss to form a verdant groundcover.

According to the museum's director, Malcolm Rogers, the idea behind creating the Tenshin-En was twofold: that it should stand as a living work of art in itself, while also serving as a serene oasis in the heart of the museum, where visitors can withdraw from its bustling labyrinth of hallways to refresh themselves in its calm beauty.

trowel icon For more on the MFA's Japanese garden, see Tenshin-En: The Garden of the Heart of Heaven (1993).
trowel icon For more information about the Museum of Fine Arts, visit them online at

This segment appears in show #2710.

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Published August 31, 2007