Serene Compassion – A Large and Rare Yuan Dynasty Qingbai Guanyin
Rosemary Scott, Senior International Academic Consultant, Asian Art
This graceful bodhisattva combines inherent serenity with an expression of infinite compassion. The figure sits in the relaxed attitude of ‘royal ease’ rajalilasana, with the left arm straight at the side of the figure and the hand resting lightly on the floor, while the right arm rests casually on the figure’s raised right knee with the hand hanging loosely from a flexed wrist. The face has a gentle expression, with the eyes downcast and the mouth forming a tender smile.
The body of this figure is androgynous and the face has a gentle softness. It is almost certainly a representation of Guanyin, who is often depicted in rajalilasana. The name Guanyin literally means ‘she who listens to the sound’ and is one of the most popular Buddhist deities in China. Although this bodhisattva originated in India as Avalokitesvara in male form, in China over time the figure was transformed into female form and was especially associated with compassion. One of the identifying features of figures of Guanyin is the small figure of Amitabha which usually appears at the front of the diadem worn by bodhisattva. The ornate part of the headdress of the current figure, which would have held the figure of Amitabha, appears to be missing, and may originally have been made of fragile pierced porcelain, lacquer or precious metal. This view is reinforced by a figure in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, dated to the mid-late- 13th century, which has the same front portion of the headdress as the current figure, but still has in place the pierced porcelain extensions (see D. Leidy, ‘Qingbai Buddhist Sculpture’, Transactions of the Oriental Ceramic Society, vol. 81, 2016-17, p. 113, fig. 4).
Buddhist figures of the Yuan dynasty, made in porcelain and covered with a qingbai glaze, developed from the tradition of finely-modelled religious figures made at the Jingdezhen kilns during the Southern Song period (1127-1279). There is a very small extant group of these Song figures in international collections. Inscriptions and the date of tombs in which these figures have been found suggest that they were made in the second and third quarters of the 13th century - just prior to the Mongol conquest.
While the majority of the Southern Song figures are all only partly glazed, this is not usually the case in the Yuan dynasty, when the figures are generally fully glazed. However, in a small number of instances, such as the current figure, areas of the figure would be left unglazed. This was to allow the area to be lacquered, or in very rare cases cold-painted, although generally, lacquer replaced cold-painting on partially-glazed Yuan qingbai Buddhist figures. Lacquer can be seen on a seated, qingbai glazed, figure of the Buddha Amitabha is in the collection of the Beijing Art Museum (illustrated in Treasures from Ancient Beijing, New York, 2000, p. 16, no. 7, and cover). This figure, dated to the Yuan dynasty, has robes, which are partially lacquered, apparently over areas of the porcelain left free of glaze.
The number of the Yuan dynasty figures, including the current figure, are notably larger than the Southern Song figures. The famous qingbai glazed Yuan dynasty bodhisattva seated in maharajalilasana, which was excavated in 1955 from Dingfu Street in the western suburbs of Beijing, is 67 cm. tall. This figure is now in the Capital Museum, Beijing (illustrated in Zhongguo wenwu jinghua quanji – taoci juan, op. cit., p. 353, no. 618). Other large Yuan dynasty figures include the qingbai glazed seated bodhisattva in the collection of the Rietberg Museum, Zurich (Illustrated ibid. 25) and the qingbai glazed seated bodhisattva in the Metropolitan Museum, New York (illustrated by S. G. Valenstein in A Handbook of Chinese Ceramics, New York, 1975, p. 127, no. 120). The appearance of larger figures in the Yuan dynasty towards the end of the 13th century can be explained not only by changing tastes, but also by changes in technology, specifically to the porcelain body material used at Jingdezhen. The new body material contained more kaolin and thus more alumina, which facilitated the production of larger figures, and indeed vessels. However, a number of extant Yuan dynasty figures are only slightly larger than their Southern Song counterparts, and a particularly graceful Yuan dynasty Guanyin in the collection of C.P. Lin (illustrated by Rosemary Scott in Elegant Form and Harmonious Decoration - Four Dynasties of Jingdezhen Porcelain,London, 1992, p. 20, no. 4) is a case in point, as is a Yuan Guanyin in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum (illustrated by Stacey Pierson (ed.) in Qingbai Ware: Chinese Porcelain of the Song and Yuan Dynasties, London, 2002, pp. 216-7, no. 121).
The current figure, like that in the Capital Museum, Beijing, the Metropolitan Museum, New York, and the collection of C.P. Lin, has complex jewellery, scarves and long hair separately moulded and applied to the figure after the main body was complete. The delicate net-like beaded apron or over-skirt that hangs from just below the waist of the current figure is shared by the Victoria and Albert Museum figure of Guanyin, as well as the C.P. Lin Guanyin, and the Guanyin from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum, and the excavated Guanyin in the Capital Museum. The necklace which adorns the current figure’s chest is of unusually elegant form and shares the incorporation of elements in the form of flower heads with the Victoria and Albert Museum figure, the Metropolitan Museum Figure, and the C.P. Lin bodhisattva.
The current bodhisattva is a particularly beautiful figure which seems to embody both serenity and compassion.