Artist not known, Japan
1100s, late Heian period
Height: 50 in. (including base)
Collector's Choice IV Benefit Fund, 1982.134
Photograph © Denver Art Museum 2009. All Rights Reserved.
About the Artist
This sculpture was most likely made by multiple artisans who were called busshi [BOO-shee] (Japanese sculptors of Buddhist images). It was made during Japan’s Heian period (794-1185 CE), an era characterized by a great flowering of literature, art, and religious thinking. During the Heian period, sculptures were made almost exclusively of wood. This sculpture was made in the yosegi [yoh-SEH-gee] fashion, a technique that involved carving several separate pieces of wood and assembling them to form the sculpture. After the pieces were assembled, the detailed carving would be finished. Often, each piece of wood was carved by a different artisan-specialist. This kind of assembly line production turned out more large-scale images than a single artisan could, and in a shorter amount of time. This sculpture was also painted with brilliant colors, but the paint has worn off over time, leaving the wood exposed in certain areas.
What Inspired It
The word bodhisattva [boh-dee-SAHT-vah] means "one whose essence is enlightenment.” A bodhisattva is an important figure in the Buddhist religion. In Buddhism, all living beings take part in an ongoing cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, known as the Wheel of Life. All deeds, good or bad, are carried from past lives into future lives. This cycle continues until sufficient knowledge and spiritual experience leads to enlightenment, or nirvana [neer-VAH-nah]. A bodhisattva is a being who has achieved nirvana but, instead of passing out of the Wheel of Life, chooses to remain in the world to help others. Bodhisattvas exercise compassion by sharing the wisdom they have gained during their many past lives.
This sculpture is a representation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion (called Kannon [KAH-known] in Japanese), who was one of the most popular bodhisattvas in Heian Japan. The name Kannon means “the one who hears their cries.” Believers appeal to Kannon for help in achieving enlightenment and protection from disaster. This sculpture was an object of devotion, probably placed in a Buddhist temple complex where devotees could make offerings to the bodhisattva.
There are thirty-two different forms of Kannon; this sculpture depicts the form called the Eleven-Headed Kannon. Only five of the eleven small heads remain on the top of the sculpture. The eleven heads are said to originate out of the despair that the bodhisattva felt at seeing countless individuals who had not found salvation. This grief caused his head to split into ten fragments which then formed into additional heads. The additional heads symbolize his awareness of the needs of all conscious beings—humans, animals, and insects.
Jeweled crowns are typical of bodhisattvas and suggest royal stature.
The bodhisattva’s expression is meant to express gentleness or kindness. The eyes are almost closed and may convey a sense of calm.
The proportions of this sculpture mirror the fashions of the upper class during the Heian Period. The padded hips, slightly bulging belly, full arms, rings of flesh on the neck, and long, pierced earlobes are all signs of wealth and nobility. Being thin as a sign of beauty is very much a creation of the modern world. In the past, in most cultures, beauty was associated with having plenty to eat and being a bit on the fleshy side.
The lotus plant symbolizes purity emerging from an imperfect world. Lotus flowers grow from the mud at the bottom of a pond and eventually bloom on top of clear water.
Although the wood grain would not have been visible originally (it would have been hidden under brightly colored paint), its lines follow the forms of the face and body with precision.
These hand positions are called mudra [MOO-drah] and are a kind of hand-sign language. One hand is held down with palm open and the fingers gently cupped. The other hand is raised with thumb and middle finger together. These two hand gestures together might have suggested appeasement, or bringing peace and calmness to the world. However, it is possible the hands were replaced over the years, as hands are fragile and tend to break off of sculptures.
Quick Classroom Ideas
- The lotus in this sculpture symbolizes purity emerging from the imperfect. Write a haiku about the life of a lotus comparing the mud at its roots and the clear water where the flower resides.