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Polychrome and Gilt Wood Avalokiteshvara (Guanyin)

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Carved wood figure of Avalokiteshvara seated in a variant of royal ease, lalitasana, in a rocky openwork grotto, the base carved with waves from which spring lotus in full bloom, bud and leaf form. The deity, glancing downwards to proper left, wears a headdress that tumbles over the shoulders and full draperies that leave the chest bare and cascade in folds to touch the lotus below. The figure rests the left arm on a ledge and holds a rectangular box, perhaps containing a sutra. A flask in the shape of a gourd is placed on an outcrop to the deity’s right whilst a bird, the ‘white parrot’ associated with Avalokiteshvara, perches on a rock to the left. The sculpture is still decorated with patches of green and red pigment over a gesso ground, as well as areas of gilding.

Height: 31.0cm

Provenance:

Bluett and Sons, London, 1972. 

Dr and Mrs John Kurtz, Brussels.

 

Exhibited:

London, 2019, Eskenazi Limited.

 

Published:

Eskenazi Limited, Room for study: fifty scholars’ objects, London 2019, number 28

 

Similar examples:

Jin Shen, Fojiao diaosu mingpin tulu, (Catalogue of Famous Buddhist Sculptures), Beijing, 1997, number 465, for a Ming dynasty example.

 

D. Jenkins, Masterworks in Wood: China and Japan, Portland Art Museum and Asia House Gallery, New York and Portland, 1976, number 10, for a slightly larger seated figure of Guanyin from the Denver Art Museum.

 

Eskenazi Limited, Early Chinese art from tombs and temples, London, 1993, number 47.


 

The Buddhist cult of Avalokiteshvara, or Guanyin, the goddess of Mercy, became one of the most popular and widespread in China. Depicted in India, Tibet, South-east Asia as a young prince, in China, during the Tang dynasty, representations of Avalokiteshvara were also usually male, as seen in the ninth and tenth century frescoes and banners preserved in the cave temples of Dunhuang. Over the following centuries, the deity became completely sinicized and transformed into the female figure known as Guanyin, of which there were numerous manifestations. Guanyin was thought to be able to save man from many perils and disasters and to confer special benefits; all that was required was for the devotee to invoke the name of the deity.

Seated in a rocky grotto, with a lotus plant growing from the waves beneath, the attributes of this figure of Avalokiteshvara include the flask placed on  a  rocky outcrop, the parrot perched on the proper left and the sutra held in the left hand. The placement    of the figure in a rocky outcrop with these attributes suggest that it is likely to be Guanyin of the South Sea, the Nanhai Guanyin. This deity is usually depicted seated on a rock, with a vase by her side, often containing a willow branch. A white parrot is placed on one side, often carrying prayer beads. She is also often attended by a boy and a girl, who are not evident in this case. The rocky outcrop is a reference to Potalaka, the sacred home   of Guanyin, which by later periods became associated with the island, Mount Putuo, off the coast of Zhejiang province.

 

For a discussion of  the source of the parrot attribute, refer to  Chün-fang Yü, ‘Guanyin: The Chinese Transformation of Avalokiteshvara’, in  Marsha Weidner,  Latter Days of the Law, Images of Chinese Buddhism, 850 - 1850, Kansas and Honolulu, 1994, pages 165 - 166, who suggests that it is drawn from the Smaller Pure Land Sutra (S. Sukhavativyuha, or Amituo jing), the sutra describing the Pure Land as being filled with parrots and other rare birds. Also associated with the parrot was a popular text recorded in Yingge baojuan (Precious Volume of the Parrot). This recounts the tale of a filial parrot, whose ill mother wanted to eat cherries that only grew in the Eastern Land. The parrot travelled there to find them, was captured and put into captivity. The parrot went on to give sermons, converting all who heard him to Buddhism. Bodhidharma then came to the parrot and suggested that he should pretend to be dead to escape. The plan succeeded but when the parrot returned home, he found his mother had died and he fainted with grief. Then, ‘Guanyin, moved by his filial piety, came and revived the parrot by using the willow branch to sprinkle him with the pure water that she kept in the vase. Guanyin also helped the parrot’s parents achieve a good rebirth, and in gratitude, the parrot asked to accompany Guanyin always.’1

 

1 Weidner, op. cit. page 166