China: Bodhisattva Bodhisattva, probably Avalokiteshvara (Guanyin), Northern Qi dynasty, c. 550-60, Shanxi Province, China, sandstone with pigments, 13-3/4 feet / 419.1 cm high (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)
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- A: We are here at the Metropolitan Meseum of Art,
- A: in New York, looking at a monumental sculpture of a Bodhisattva.
- B: So, the Buddha's the main figure we often see, and there are many Buddha's in Chinese Buddhist art.
- There is the historical Buddha, but lots of other figures.
- And there are also Bodhisattva's, and that's what we're looking at, and one of the main ways you can distinguish
- them is that the Bodhisatta's are often heavily adorned, like this figure is.
- A Bodhisattva is an enlightened being that has chosen not to pursue Nirvana, but remain with ties to the earthly realm,
- and secure enlightenment, or release of Samsara,
- which is the cycle of rebirth for all sentient beings.
- So, Bodhisattva's are seen as beings of compassion.
- B: So, they've decided to forego Nirvana, and be here for us, for regular people. To help us achieve our own Nirvana.
- A: And they're shown to have these worldly ties through their princely garb.
- The iconography of a Buddha is shown in monk's garb, having relinquished all ties to the earth, all ties to material things.
- So, you see the Buddha with the elongated earlobes and the jewels removed.
- Here we see a Bodhisattva in princely robes, and heavily adorned with
- valuable jewels, showing their connections still to the earth.
- B: What's funny is that is the Bodhisattva of compassion, and yet I don't feel a lot of identification with it.
- It's very frontal, it's very symmetrical, and severe, and kind of abstracted. And it feels very distant in that way.
- A: There is a solemnness, a serenity, but there is also a haughtiness to the expression of this image.
- B: Exactly, he must be about fifteen or twenty feet high, and I imagine it stood in the temple complex.
- A: Yes; it's huge, and frontal, so perhaps it was the main image for worship in its location.
- B: And often these kinds of figures would be shown as groups within a temple.
- And this one was so large that it's likely that it is the main figure.
- A: Often, Bodhisattva's are show flanking Buddha's, and they'll have the weight on one foot, turning toward
- the Buddha that they're flanking. And this image is presented frontally, and often this Bodhisattva is
- attributed to being Avalokitesvara -Guanyin- the Bodhisattva of compassion, the most popular
- Bodhisattva for worship in China, under Mahayana-type of Buddhism.
- B: One of the ways we would normally identify a Bodhisattva figure, since there are many Bodhisattva's, representing
- different ideas, is by what they're holding, but unfortunately, this sculpture, being from the Sixth Century,
- has suffered a lot of damage, and its hands are no longer with it, and so, we don't know what it held.
- A: Right, we don't know what the attributes may have been, and Avalokitesvara -Guanyin- in China, often has the
- Buddha, Amitabha, in the crown. And that's an attribute that distinguishes it, and makes it clear that the
- iconography is Avalokitesvara, but here the Buddha is not there. It's more of a floral crown, so there is some
- A: uncertainty over which Bodhisattva this actually is.
- B: It's interesting how much we can tell about it, but how much of it is really in dispute by scholars.
- And the styles of art that we see in Art History are so connected to the historical circumstances. Often politics, the government.
- And we know that the period just before this was called the Northern Wei, which had a really different style.
- A: Yes, what happens is in the Northern Wei, the styles that was predominant was weightless and very linear.
- Important examples can be found in the cave temple of Yungang, where in Cave 6 you would see a Buddha,
- or Bodhisattva image that shows no attention to the body form, but a lot attention to the fold and lines
- of the drapery, and the shapes are weightless.
- B: So that period known as the Northern Wei is about fifty years before this, and is a relatively stable time in parts of China -
- A: Particularly in the North, absolutely.
- B: - and then a period of political upheaval follows.
- A: And the two strong dynasties that emerge in the North are the Northern Qi, in the East, and the Northern Chou,
- in the West. And this is a very interesting Bodhisattva example, when you're thinking about that time period.
- There are some characteristics that really indicate the Northern Qi, but others that indicate the Northern Chou.
- And, granted, there's a lot of overlap in between the styles of Buddha's and Bodhisattva's that come out of the two
- dynasties. One thing is this incredible opulence in terms of the drapery and the jewelry, details that are
- often associated with the Northern Chou. The other aspect that is Northern Chou is the square shape to the face,
- the block-like features. Both the Nothern Chou and the Northern Qi broke in from this Northern Wei aesthetic of
- weightlessness, and show the Bodhisattva's and Buddha's with a lot of three-dimensional and geometric forms.
- B: This figure is anything but weightless.
- A: Absolutely. And you can see its monumental and columnar, but it has this weight and volume.
- We are looking at it the way that it would've been viewed in the temple.
- We would be looking up at it, which is why the head is so oversized.
- B: So, the artist would've wanted to make sure that we could really see the head
- A: Yes.
- B: And from far below, one way to do that is to enlarge the head.
- A: And looking at the facial features, in particular, there is a head at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that is from Xiangtangshan,
- a Northern Qi site in China. And if you compare this head, you can see that this is much more block-like, but when you
- look at the lips, and the eyes and the other aspects of the facial features, there is a similarity.
- B: So, we're really talking about dynasties, different historical periods, and different regional styles emerging in different places.
- And art historians really needing to study each of those places, and the art that emerges,
- and then comparing and contrasting to locate a lot of these early figures.
- Buddhism had only come to China had only come to China a few years earlier, from India.
- And, in those few hundred years, the styles that developed from Buddhist art are really dependent on those different regions, and different dynasties.
- And therefore, there's so much change going on.
- A: And this is an interesting example of that because we see here this very abrupt break
- with the weightless, linear aesthetic of the Northern Wei, to this much more volumetric,
- massive forms that is associated with the Northern Qi and Northern Chou.
- This source for this change is often identified as Gupta in India. Sensuous Gupta style.
- B: It's really a puzzle (A: It is) in many ways. So many questions.
- One thing we know for sure, because we can see the residue here, is that the sculpture was painted,
- and probably painted many times to keep the color vibrant over the years.
- A: What we're really looking at is probably remnants of Ming dynasty painting,
- maybe Sixteen Century. But it would've been an originally painted as well.
- B: So, its important to imagine in its original context, within a temple, sensuously painted
- and in that kind of religious, spiritual context.
- A: Yes, and a much darker environment as well, and surrounded by other sculptures and paintings.
- Subtitles by DaLinMan
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