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“Bodhisattva of Compassion Seated in Royal Ease”

“Bodhisattva of Compassion Seated in Royal Ease” at the Denver Art Museum was created in 10ᵗʰ century China. The 17-inch-tall sculpture depicts the bodhisattva Guanyin sitting serenely on a lotus throne, gazing down as if listening intently to its devotees. Guanyin’s name means “the one who always hears.” Discover what makes this 1,000-year-old sculpture a masterpiece with Christoph Heinrich, Frederick and Jan Mayer Director of the Denver Art Museum. Video by Bank of America. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(Jazz music plays) Hello, I'm Christoph Heinrich, Frederick and Jan Mayer Director of the Denver Art Museum. Welcome to the Bank of America's Masterpiece Moment. Today I would like to talk about one of my favorite works from our collection, the "Bodhisattva of Compassion Seated in Royal Ease," also called "Guanyin Posa," and I would like to tell you why I think this is truly a masterpiece. This tenth-century sculpture is carved from two pieces of wood, quite likely boxwood, a common material used during this time, and fitted together perfectly. It stands about 17 inches tall, and it was once beautifully painted, and if you look carefully you can still see traces of color. In Buddhist teachings, bodhisattvas are wise and compassionate, and they are beings who are capable of enlightenment but postpone it in order to help ordinary people along the Buddhist path. Given its age, this sculpture remains in remarkably good condition. As I mentioned, traces of pigment remain, indicating that its original appearance would have been brightly painted - draped fabric, necklace, and crown in red cinnabar, details like the belt and some swaths of the fabric in green, possibly the mineral malachite. Guanyin's arms and upper torso were probably white, and details in black pigment. Trace amounts of gold show us that gilt elements added reflective brightness and vibrancy. While most of the color is lost, its elegance and beauty persist. We can only imagine the wonder it might have inspired in devotees who approached the Guanyin for merciful blessings. This masterpiece was made in China during the Five Dynasties period, when China was split into small kingdoms that were engaged in constant conflict. Buddhism had come to China around the first century of the Common Era or earlier, likely via Buddhist monks and pilgrims traveling with merchant caravans alongside the Silk Road trade routes. It became a major cultural force in China, mingling with local belief systems to develop a distinctly Chinese form of Buddhism, flourishing over the centuries, and leading to the creation of many temples furnished with sculptures like this one. The popular Chinese form of Buddhism emphasized bodhisattvas as an accessible source of help and guidance. Guanyin, whose name means "the one who always hears," was particularly beloved. Guanyin is usually depicted elegantly dressed and sumptuously ornamented, a style influenced by earlier representations in India. Sitting serenely on a lotus throne in the posture of royal ease, Guanyin gazes downward, as if listening attentively to the devotees who pray for release from their suffering. The figure and the throne were carved separately from different sections of solid wood, fitting together perfectly to display this beloved bodhisattva. Among all the known examples of Guanyin from this period, this one is certainly among the finest. The unknown maker of this sculpture was exceptionally skilled at imbuing the work with sensitivity and with grace. And it was likely one of the skilled specialist artisans whose works were displayed in temples and shrines for the devotion of Chinese Buddhists. Seeing the Guanyin, I'm reminded that there is a timelessness to the notion of compassion for oneself and for others. It remains as relevant today as it did when this symbol of mercy was made, over 1,000 years ago. I want to thank you for taking the time to watch today and to learn more about the "Bodhisattva of Compassion, Guanyin." I encourage you to join the conversation and discuss the work with those you know. And please visit the Bank of America Masterpiece Moment website to sign up for alerts and ensure that you never miss a moment. To sign up to receive notifications about new Bank of America Masterpiece Moment videos, please visit: www.bankofamerica.com/ masterpiecemoment.