Seated Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (Guanyin)
Unknown artist, Chinese, Dali Kingdom, probably from Yunnan Province, Dali Kingdom, 937-1253 CE or later
Seated Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (Guanyin), 1100s - 1400s
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
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.
About the work
This small gilt bronze was made in the Yunnan region of southwest China, an area bordering India, Burma, and Tibet, at a time when the area was the independent kingdom of Dali. Certain accounts state that this bodhisattva was an Indian monk who visited the Yunnan area in the 7th century. Also known as Guanyin, Avalokitesvara was the venerated guardian of the people of the Dali kingdom. In Buddhism, a bodhisattva is an enlightened and compassionate figure who supports human efforts to reach enlightenment. This figure is a record of some of the intercultural influences that shaped religion and art in that time and place.
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, the figure conveys both attention and ease. The elaborate crown on the sculpture’s head contains the figure of the Amitabha Buddha, the Buddha of Infinite Light and the spiritual mentor of Avalokitesvara. The sculpture exhibits several characteristics often used to depict this bodhisattva: a headdress with imagery; right bent leg with the left leg lowered; slim, elongated torso; symmetrical face; elaborate jewelry; narrow scarf draped over the shoulders and falling around the figure; and a pleated skirt with belt.
Bodhisattvas are vital beings in Buddhism, a nontheistic religion with multiple branches and approaches to the quest for attaining enlightenment. Siddhartha Guatama, known as the Guatama Buddha or the historical Buddha, is not considered a god but rather an awakened teacher whose words and life serve as an example to others seeking enlightenment. Those who have attained enlightenment and the right to exit the wheel of rebirth but decide to return to earth to assist others on the way to nirvana are called bodhisattvas, or “enlightened ones.” Nirvana is a blissful state, without delusions of the mind or the burdens of the material world. Bodhisattvas are considered especially compassionate and merciful figures for their willingness to help others achieve nirvana.
Bodhisattvas have alternatively been represented as male, female, or with no specific gender. This quality may relate to their capacity to take on different forms depending on the needs of the individual devotee seeking delivery from danger or a difficult situation. In particular, Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara is seen as a savior for those who have both physical and spiritual needs, and since the 6th century has been a popular and revered being.
The varied appearances of representations of bodhisattvas and buddhas may also be explained by Buddhism’s long history and enormous geographic sweep. As Buddhism spread from India to China to countries including Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Cambodia, Korea, and Japan, different art styles and religious ideas were incorporated into representations of buddhas and bodhisattvas.
Representations such as this one might be used by a Buddhist as a visual aid to help a worshipper focus on the qualities depicted. What might this sculpture tell us about the bodhisattva’s nature?
This object is made from bronze through a lost-wax process of bronze casting—students can read about this process here. What properties does metal have that might be important for a religious object?
Sculptures of bodhisattvas were made for temples and for private worship. Given its small size, where do you think a statue like this might have originally been placed?
Compare the Chinese bodhisattva with this Buddha made in Japan around the same time. Ask students to list similarities and differences in the pose, hand gestures, adornments, and overall mood of each depiction. Based on what students notice, especially the differences, ask them to discuss in small groups how worshippers might respond to these two representations.
There is a hierarchy of beings in Buddhism, and representations of buddhas and bodhisattvas generally suggest physical space and spiritual dimensions, as well as the relationships between the figures depicted. For example, in places of worship, Avalokitesvara often sits on a pedestal to the right of the Amitabha Buddha, the Buddha of Infinite Light. To further explore the principles of Buddhism, especially ideas of enlightenment, have students imagine this sculpture situated in its appropriate place within this typical ideal arrangement. While the Buddha is shown in nirvana, an ideal state without desire, Avalokitesvara is casually seated in repose, touching the earth. Have students first draw a platform 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.
Selected Works, Providence: Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, 2008: 45.
Taigen Dan Leighton. Faces of Compassion: Classic Bodhisattva Archetypes and Their Modern Expression. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2012.
Denise Leidy. “Chinese Buddhist Sculpture” in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/chbu/hd_chbu.htm (September 2010)
Vidya Dehejia. “Buddhism and Buddhist Art” in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. href=”http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/budd/hd_budd.htm”>http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/budd/hd_budd.htm (February 2007)