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Buddhism & Beloved Bodhisattvas: The Origins and Art of Guanyin and Tara

By: Heather Herbstritt

Oakridge is pleased to present two auctions of Chinese Jade & Ceramics and Chinese Jade, Ceramics & Works of Art on February 8 and 9 beginning at 9am EST, featuring a selection of Buddhist sculptures dating as far back as the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Offered among the variety of bronze and wood Buddhas are Lots 320 and 343, two notable examples of beloved female Bodhisattvas.


Buddhism originated as a practice in Northern India following the life and spiritual teachings of Siddhartha Gautama (Shakyamuni). Its earliest presence in China is traceable to the Eastern Han dynasty (25-200 CE), while waxing and waning in popularity throughout subsequent dynasties. Despite the practice’s origins in South Asia, the visual culture of Chinese Buddhist art developed its own stylistic language and independent identities.

Unique to Chinese Buddhism is the appearance of Guanyin, a female variant of the Bodhisattva, Avalokiteshvara. Assuming the attributes of Avalokiteshvara, Guanyin became a widespread symbol of compassion and later an identity for several Imperial Empresses, notably Empress Dowager Cisheng (1545-1614). Within Buddhism, Bodhisattvas are enlightened beings who remained earth-bound to assist others in reaching nirvana. In this role as an enlightenment guide, Guanyin is a celebrated Buddhist figure in Chinese culture, inspiring a plethora of statues, paintings, and ceramics.


Exemplary among this rich visual history is a gilt-wood sculpture of Guanyin, to be offered as lot 343 on February 9. Raised to seventeen inches tall (43cm), this wood carving embodies the reverence Chinese culture holds for the Bodhisattva. The symmetrically seated Guanyin exudes a serene expression, featuring the characteristic Buddhist urna while vested in simple robes cascading over her lotus-pose (padmasana) meditation. Gently pressing her palms together, Guanyin forms the anjali mudra, a symbol of greeting and adoration, allowing this sculpture to seamlessly integrate into any collection or Buddhist home.


In addition to this sensitive Guanyin is another Bodhisattva to be offered on February 9 as lot 320, a gilt-bronze seated figure of Tara: a highly revered female Bodhisattva/Buddha in both Indo-Himalayan and Chinese Buddhist practices. Her image is traditionally associated with ‘universal mother’ and ‘liberator’ types. Born from the lamentations of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, the beautiful Tara emerged from a lotus, seeking to liberate all practitioners from suffering and deliver them to Nirvana with kindness and compassion.


The profuse adoration of Tara throughout the Buddhist world manifests beautifully in this devotional Chinese bronze of the deity. While ascertaining attributes of an enlightened being—notably the elongated earlobes, beaded string worn by bodhisattvas, and meditative pose—she radiates a welcoming expression evoking her role as ‘liberating mother’. Characteristic of Chinese depictions of Tara, she sits straight and poised upon a stylized lotus gently gesturing the varada mudra towards the viewer and endowing her blessings. Flanked on either by stylized lotuses, a universal attribute of both Tara and Buddhism, this sculpture embodies this Buddha's efforts to achieve enlightenment.


Presented together at Oakridge, these artworks of Guanyin and Tara offer an exemplary opportunity for collectors and auction lovers to both incorporate and behold the centuries of artistic Buddhist tradition.



References:

Ables, Kelsey. “The Complex Meanings behind Hand Gestures in Buddhist Art.” Asrtsy.net. March 28, 2019. https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-complex-meanings-hand-gestures-buddhist-art

Leidy, Denise Patry, and Strahan, Donna. Wisdom Embodied: Chinese Buddhist and Daoist Sculpture in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. (New York: MetPublications, 2010). https://books.google.com/books?id=GFa0uSleDNwC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false

Pham, Kevin. “Compassion, Mercy, and Love: Guanyin and the Virgin Mary.” Metmuseum.org. The Met Perspectives. May 7, 2021. https://www.metmuseum.org/perspectives/articles/2021/5/virgin-mary-guanyin

Shaw, Miranda. “Tara, the saviouress.” in Goddess: divine energy, 211-220. Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2006.

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