THE SOAME JENYNS COLLECTION OF JAPANESE AND CHINESE ART
Seated Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara
Robert D. Mowry 毛瑞
Alan J. Dworsky Curator of Chinese Art Emeritus,
Harvard Art Museums, and
Senior Consultant, Christie’s
This exquisite sculpture represents the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, as indicated by the presence in the headdress of a small seated image of the Buddha Amitabha 阿彌陀佛. Avalokiteshvara is known formally in Chinese as Guanshiyin Pusa 觀世音普薩, but the name typically is contracted simply to Guanyin 觀音. Considered a spiritual emanation of Amitabha, Avalokiteshvara is the only bodhisattva in whose crown or headdress Amitabha appears, and thus Amitabha’s presence here definitively identifies this figure as Avalokiteshvara, who is sometimes also called Padmapani 波頭摩巴尼 (“Holder of the Lotus”) or Lokesvara 世自在 or 世自在王 (“Lord of the World”).
Elegantly outfitted in the sumptuous trappings of an Indian prince of old, bodhisattvas 菩薩 are benevolent beings who have attained enlightenment 菩提 but who have selflessly postponed entry into nirvana 涅槃 in order to assist other sentient beings—有情 or 眾生—in gaining enlightenment. Meaning “enlightened being”, a bodhisattva is an altruistic being who is dedicated to assisting other sentient beings in achieving release from the samsara cycle of birth and rebirth 輪迴 through the attainment of enlightenment; bodhisattvas thus embody the Mahayana Buddhist 大乘佛教 ideal of delivering all living creatures from suffering 普渡眾生.
Bodhisattvas are presented in the guise of an early Indian prince, a reference to Siddhartha Gautama’s worldly status as a crown prince before he became the Historical Buddha Shakyamuni 釋迦牟尼佛, implying that just as Siddhartha 喬達摩悉達多 (traditionally, c. 563–c. 483 BC) became a Buddha 佛, so will bodhisattvas eventually become Buddhas, once all sentient beings have attained enlightenment.
As evinced by this compelling sculpture, bodhisattvas generally are depicted with a single head, two arms, and two legs, though they in fact may be shown with multiple heads and limbs, depending upon the individual bodhisattva and the particular manifestation as described in the sutras 佛經, or sacred texts. Richly attired, bodhisattvas, who may be presented either standing or seated, are represented with long hair often arranged in a tall coiffure, or bun, atop the head and often with long strands of hair cascading over the shoulders; as evinced by this sculpture, a crown sometimes surrounds the topknot. Bodhisattvas wear ornamental scarves, dhotis of rich silk brocade, and a wealth of jewelry that typically includes necklaces, armlets, bracelets, and anklets. Like Buddhas, bodhisattvas have distended earlobes; some, like this Avalokiteshvara wear earrings, others do not. Though bodhisattvas generally are shown barefoot, as in this example, both early Indian and early Chinese images of bodhisattvas may be shown wearing sandals, often of plaited straw.
In addition to the image of the Buddha Amitabha atop the head, which is Avalokiteshvara’s definitive identifying attribute, the bodhisattva typically holds such iconographic attributes as a lotus blossom, a vase, a ritual kundika vessel 淨瓶 for holy water, or is portrayed in association with a willow branch, a Buddhist symbol of healing, both physical and spiritual. In addition to those that comprise the base, two lotus blossoms flank this bodhisattva, one at each shoulder.
A translation of the Sanskrit name Avalokiteshvara, Guanshiyin means “[The One Who] Perceives the Sounds of the World”, a reference to Guanyin’s ability to hear both the cries of the afflicted and the prayers of supplicants. An earthly manifestation of the Buddha Amitabha, Guanyin guards the world in the interval between the departure of the Historical Buddha Shakyamuni and the appearance of Maitreya 彌勒, the Buddha of the Future. The Lotus Sutra—known in Sanskrit as the Saddharma Pundarika Sutra and in Chinese as the Miaofa Lianhua Jing 妙法蓮華經—is generally accepted as the earliest sacred text that presents the doctrines of Avalokiteshvara, that presentation occurring in Chapter 25. Titled Guanshiyin Pusa Pumenpin 觀世音菩薩普門品 and devoted to Guanyin, that chapter describes Guanyin as a compassionate bodhisattva who hears the cries of sentient beings and who works tirelessly to help all those who call upon his name. Thirty-three different manifestations of the bodhisattva are described, including female manifestations as well as ones with multiple heads and multiple limbs.
The style of this sculpture belongs to a long artistic tradition that can be traced to northeastern India in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, which then spread to Nepal and Tibet. The flowering of the Nepali variant of the style in China during the Yuan dynasty 元朝 (1279-1368) is often linked to the influence of Anige 阿尼哥 (1245-1306), a young Nepali artist who was brought to Beijing in 1262 by Chogyal Phags’pa (1235-1280), an influential Tibetan monk of the Sakya sect and state preceptor for Khubilai Khan (1215-1294), the founder of the Yuan dynasty. Anige played an important role at the Mongol court, serving as the director of all artisan classes and the controller of the Imperial Manufactories Commission.
Although Tibetan Buddhist imagery began to appear in the repertory of Chinese art already in the Yuan dynasty, Tibetan influence on Chinese Buddhist art became far more pronounced in the Ming dynasty 明朝 (1368-1644), particularly during the Yongle era 永樂 (1403-1425), when the imperial court looked favorably upon Buddhism and made a concerted effort to build secular and religious alliances with Tibet, even inviting Tibetan monks to the capital, Beijing, to conduct religious services. Such Tibetan influence manifests itself in the sensuousness of the art, as witnessed in this figure’s elegant proportions, S-curved posture, dazzling jewels, refined gestures, abundant and meticulously rendered details, and compressed double-lotus base. As important as Tibetan-influenced works of art were early in fifteenth-century China, particularly in the Yongle and Xuande 宣德 (1426-1435) reigns, Tibetan-style Buddhism probably was little practiced outside the imperial court, so most such images likely were made for the court, as indicated by the imperial inscriptions.
The bodhisattva’s broad shoulders, smooth torso, and long legs derive from Indian traditions, as do the thin clothing and such items of jewelry as the armbands. By contrast, the large circular earrings; the broad, somewhat square face with high cheekbones and elegant, curved eyebrows; and the prolific use of inlays stem from Nepali and Tibetan traditions.
Numerous sculptures in this Nepali-Tibetan-influenced style were produced during the Yongle reign, and the style continued into the sixteenth century with but little change or evolution. The soft folds in the scarf draped over the bodhisattva’s shoulders and arms and the loose pleats of the sarong-like undergarment are typical of works produced in the imperial workshops during the Yongle and Xuande reigns, as is the careful casting of the back.
The formulaic, six-character inscription reading Da Ming Xuande nian shi 大明宣德年施, which is engraved at the center of the base’s flat top and which may be translated “Bestowed [during the] Xuande era [of the] Great Ming”, dates this sculpture to the Xuande reign (1436-1435) of the Ming dynasty, a period of great artistic refinement in China. Engraved after casting, inscriptions on such Tibeto-Chinese-style bronzes typically read from left to right, as seen here and end with the verb shi 施, in this context meaning “bestow”, rather than with the verb zhi 製, meaning “made”, which is typically seen in the imperial marks of porcelains of the same period.
A copper plate covers the open base of this hollow-cast sculpture. Held in place both by friction and red wax, the base plate conceals the sculpture’s interior from view and secures in place the dedicatory materials likely deposited within to enliven the image and grant it efficacy, the dedicatory materials probably including small scrolls and perhaps tiny sculptures, precious stones, fragments of textiles, and perhaps even seeds of auspicious plants. Engraved at the center of the base plate, a double-vajra with a stylized blossom at the crossing of the two arms symbolically shields and protects the sculpture and its probable contents.
A stylistically related sculpture from the Yongle period and representing Avalokiteshvara sold at Christie’s, New York, in March 2014. A sculpture kindred in subject, style, and general appearance to the present sculpture is in the collection of the Museum Rietberg, Zurich. And a stylistically related sculpture representing Seated Bodhisattva Tara in her “Green Manifestation” is in the collection of the Harvard Art Museums (1992.289).