Moon and Smoke by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi

Moon and Smoke, 1886, Woodblock print; ink and colour on paper, 364 x 244 mm, The Dayton Art Institute, Ohio; Museum purchase with funds provided by Jack Graef Jr., Linda Stein, Susan Shettler and their families in memory of Jack and Marilyn Graef, 2019.9.59, Courtesy of the Dayton Art Institute

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Fire, Fire, Everywhere

Commentary by

2 Peter 3 says the coming day of the Lord will destroy the heavens and earth with fire and goes on to describe it with visceral terminology including: ‘with a loud noise’ (rhoizēdon), ‘will be dissolved’ (lythēsetai, lythēsontai), ‘set ablaze’ (pyroumenoi), and ‘will melt’(tēketai) (2 Peter 3:10, 12 NRSV).

Such an overwhelming flame is condensed in Tsukioka Yoshitoshi’s woodblock print Moon and Smoke from the series One Hundred Aspects of the Moon. Since Japanese houses were traditionally built with wood, towns were vulnerable to fire, especially densely populated ones like Edo (modern-day Tokyo). The firefighter seen from behind in the left foreground holds aloft a standard that helps identify the squad fighting the fire as there could be a reward if property was preserved.

The intensity of the fire described in 2 Peter 3 is evoked in this work by the superimposed use of multiple woodblocks, inked with different colours. They render the flames in a fluorescent tapestry of yellows, oranges, and greys. Powdered shells and glue sprinkled on the surface of the paper add a three-dimensional effect suggesting embers leaping into the air.

There is a cosmic aspect to the fiery destruction in the epistle. Not only are ‘the earth and everything that is done on it’ burned up (2 Peter 3:10) but the fire reaches to the heavens (v.12). Such an engulfing of both heaven and earth may also be seen in Yoshitoshi’s print. Its right side is dominated by a myriad of diagonal lines forming flames that rise up, leading the eye from the skeletal remains of a roof in the lower right to where the moon is shrouded in smoke at the top of the print, just left of centre.

Reading this detail alongside 2 Peter 3, we may see a foreshadowing of the unthinkable: that even the heavenly bodies will not be immune from the all-consuming fire of the day of the Lord.