Seated Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (Guanyin)
Unknown artist, Chinese, Dali Kingdom, probably from Yunnan Province, Dali Kingdom, 937-1253 CE or later
12th - 15th century
Seated Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (Guanyin)
Gilt bronze with traces of pigment
69.5 x 31 x 30 cm (27 3/8 x 12 3/16 x 11 13/16 inches) (full size)
Museum Appropriation Fund 18.266
(December 31, 1969)
Princely jewels, curved brows, defined cheeks, pursed lips, and a bare, slender torso mark this portrayal of the bodhisattva of mercy and compassion as made in the region now known as the Yunnan Province of southwestern China. The area was once the independent kingdom of Dali, founded and ruled by the Duan family, with Avalokitesvara, or Guanyin, serving as their protective deity.
Scientific analysis of the bronze has determined that this sculpture was made between 1100 and 1500. While the seated, almost casual pose relates to figures created by the Northern Song, the stylistic features and refined execution indicate that the sculpture was created in southwest China.
This seated bodhisattva, often called the bodhisattva of compassion, is Guanyin, one of the acolytes of the Amitabha Buddha in the pure land known as the Western Paradise. Amitabha is depicted in Guanyin’s crown. Guanyin’s role is that of intercessor for worshippers in need of assistance. Scientific analysis has determined that this sculpture was made between 1100 and 1500; however, its place of origin remains problematic. It combines iconographic elements of the Northern Song (960 — 1127) Guanyin in the ‘royal ease’ position but has the slender, bare, and bejeweled torso and pleated skirt typical of Yunnan Province in southwest China.
Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design. “Selected Works”. Providence: Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, 2008.
About the work
With the right hand resting on the right knee in a gesture of welcome, and the left half of the body balanced on the pedestal by the left palm, this figure conveys both attention and ease. The elaborate crown on the sculpture’s head contains the figure of the Amitabha Buddha, the spiritual mentor of the bodhisattva Guanyin, revered in contemporary China as “The Goddess of Mercy.” The crown, along with this particular posture, the slim, elongated torso, a symmetrical face, and elaborate jewelry conform to the accepted conventions in depictions of Guanyin-Avalokitsvara between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries.
In Mahayana Buddhism (to which Chinese Buddhism belongs), bodhisattvas have no gender. Images from the twelfth century onward often depict both masculine and feminine attributes as bodhisattva have the power to transform their bodies into any guise the individual in need of salvation finds most desirable. Bronze was a fashionable material for the depiction of Guanyin-Avalokitesvara as s/he is believed to dwell on Mount Potalaka (meaning “brilliance): a mythical mountain in the south sea of India.
• What kinds of materials and objects is the bodhisattva wearing? What may these symbolize? • This object is made from bronze through a lost wax process. What properties does metal have that would be important for a religious object? • What are the ways by which some Buddhists believe a bodhisattva can be recognized in life? How about after death? • Where would a statue like this have originally been placed? What would have been its purpose?
• To further explore the tenets of Buddhism, especially ideas of Enlightenment, have students contemplate the space in which this object would have been situated and used. In places of worship, Guanyin-Avalokitesvara often sits on a pedestal to the right of the Amitabha Buddha. While the Buddha is shown in Nirvana, or Heaven, Guanyin is casually seated in repose, touching the earth. Have students draw first a pedestal for this statue of the bodhisattva that conveys its fluid status between the spiritual and physical worlds. Second, have students either draw or describe what the frieze as a whole would look like? Who is on the Amitabha Buddha’s left side? How are the three figures thus depicted?
• To negotiate the relationship between Buddhism and other world religions and spiritual practices, involve students in a discussion of comparisons between prophets from other spiritual practices and the Buddha and between bodhisattvas and saints. How are these similar? How are they different? What information would the students need to strengthen their case?