A Statue's Royal Ease

The institute's collection spans 4,000 years of art, including Chinese bronzes, ceramics, and jades; Japanese art; and works from Africa and Oceania. It also has the premiere collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works outside of Paris.

This remarkable Japanese sculpture of a Buddhist deity came to the Art Institute of Chicago in 1995 - the same year Stephen Little did.

This was not mere coincidence: Dr. Little, newly appointed curator of Asian art, was responsible for the carving's acquisition.

A London dealer offered it, and Little was quick to reserve it for the institute. An enthusiastic director and ready funds then brought it rapidly into the collection. Now, Little says, "It's the main focal piece of our Japanese galleries."

Little assesses the piece, which is from the Kamakura period (c. AD 1250-1330), as "sophisticated, elegant of posture," and pervaded with a "very serene attitude. It really radiates a wonderfully calm presence. It has a very inward, quiet expression. All this perfectly befits a Bodhisattva."

Bodhisattvas, he explains, are "deities who are enlightened - in the same way that a Buddha is. But unlike Buddhas, who eventually enter into the realm of Nirvana, which is essentially a void, Bodhisattvas make a vow to remain in the phenomenal world. Their function is to help all sentient beings attain enlightenment. They are very much saviors. And they are deities to whom anyone can pray for help."

This particular statue is the Bodhisattva of Compassion. "In Japanese, its name is Kannon. It emerges in the Buddhist pantheon in India probably in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. There are other Bodhisattvas - of wisdom, of benevolence, and so on - but this particular one, Kannon, becomes the most popular. It's a rather international deity in terms of the spread of Buddhism throughout Asia." It also has Chinese and Sanskrit names.

The form of this sculpture is rare. "Usually, the Bodhisattva of Compassion has only two arms," Little says. But this one has six arms, all quite different. They are symbolically related to Mahayana Buddhism (or "The Great Vehicle"), "which is the form of Buddhism that came to China and East Asia from India. In Mahayana Buddhism, it was believed that all beings undergo reincarnation until they become enlightened. When you attain enlightenment, as the Buddha does, you essentially transcend the cycle of birth and rebirth. One can be reincarnated as a human being, or as an animal, or as a demon or even as a god, but until you are enlightened, until you've recognized that all of that is illusory, you can't get out of the cycle.

"The Mahayana Buddhist believes there were six realms in which you could be reincarnated. Hell - that's the lowest. The realm of the 'hungry ghosts.' Animals. Demons. The fifth realm is human beings. And the sixth is a category of heavenly beings.

"The sculpture's six arms represent the six realms of rebirth. This Bodhisattva can help beings in any of those six realms attain enlightenment. It is capable of being aware of the cries for help in all of those six realms."

"This six-armed form of the Bodhisattva is extremely rare outside of Japan," Little says. In the United States, for example, this is one of only four.

It was made of many blocks of wood that were carved, then mortise-and-tenoned together. It was then painted with black lacquer and gilded. Such sculptures were generally based, by their anonymous makers, on drawings. Right proportions were thought essential. Manuals of proportion can still be found in Japan's ancient temples, as can many of the original sculptures, still used for worship.

SEVERAL of this Kannon's features seem to have been lost. Little says that "in its original context, it probably would have been provided with a base depicting a small rocky island. The sculpture might sit on a carved wooden lotus that was placed on a base depicting a small rocky island emerging from the waves." Kannon was believed to exist on an island in the Eastern Ocean.

"Several of the hands held attributes now missing," Little explains. "The deity's full name is Nyoirin Kannon. 'Nyoirin' means 'wish-granting, wheel-turning.' Traditionally, the god held a sacred jewel in one of its lower right hands and a wheel or a disk in its raised left hand. The sacred jewel can grant wishes. The wheel is the wheel of the Dharma - the Buddhist law. When the historical Buddha first attained enlightenment in India and began to preach, he was said to turn the wheel of the Dharma."

Little emphasizes this sculpture's naturalism. "It is astonishingly lifelike. One really senses a body underneath the curving drapery. It's a very relaxed pose - known in Sanskrit as the 'royal ease.' "

The Kamakura period saw a revival of portrait sculpture and also of scientific curiosity. The naturalism of this sculpture's meditative eyes may have been influenced by these tendencies. "Its eyes are made of rock crystal and painted on their back surface. A remarkable, subtle detail," Little points out, "that conveys the sense of a living being."

* Third of five stories on The Art Institute. Other articles ran June 2 and 9. These and previous 'tours' of London's Tate Gallery and Boston's Museum of Fine Arts are posted on the Monitor's electronic edition at: www.csmonitor.com Click on the 'our place: arts and music' icon.

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