On Sept. 9, a Buddhist deity arrived at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in a wooden crate. Well, sort of.
The two-foot-tall sculpture of the bodhisattva Gwaneum — a bodhisattva is a future Buddha who has delayed enlightenment to stick around and help humanity — was once considered a living being, says Keith Wilson, the Sackler’s curator of ancient Chinese art and the curator of a new show focusing on the statue, which made the transition to museum piece around the turn of the 20th century. The centerpiece of “Sacred Dedication: A Korean Buddhist Masterpiece,” this gilded wood statue was made in 13th-century Korea, and brought to life when monks placed religious texts and symbolic objects inside of it.
It then sat in a Buddhist temple, receiving the prayers of the faithful, especially those looking for assistance with worldly problems, such as illness, infertility and poverty. “Gwaneum was an approachable deity, considered intimately involved in human affairs, functioning a little like the Virgin Mary in Catholicism,” Wilson says. One of the best-preserved sculptures of its kind, this portrayal of Gwaneum is best appreciated in person, Wilson says. “It’s a powerful object; you can just feel it.”
1. A joint in the wood
The visible seams give away the fact that this sculpture was made of 15 different pieces of fir that fit together like a puzzle. “This construction method allowed there to be a lifelike pose, with lots of open spaces for light to shine through,” Wilson says.
2. Left elbow
The awkwardly placed elbow suggests that this sculpture once rested in a naturalistic setting within its temple nook, Wilson says. “Many paintings of Gwaneum show the bodhisattva seated on a mountain,” he says.
The crown, which is made of gilded copper and iron, is unattached to the rest of the sculpture. “It’s amazing they both survived and stayed together,” Wilson says. “That’s very rare.” The flaming jewel motif represents the powerful teachings, or dharma, of the Buddha.
Set in the sculpture’s forehead is a crystal, representing an urna, or curl of hair that appears at the center of the forehead of great men. It was gilded over at some point, and restorers at the National Museum of Korea recently returned it to its (likely) original appearance.
5. Necklace on chest
The necklaces on this sculpture were molded separately, laid on the sculpture, and then gilded over. As with the crown, the jewelry suggests wealth and luxury. “A princely figure, the bodhisattva Gwaneum has not yet renounced worldly possessions,” Wilson explains.
6. Inset of bottles
Among the objects that curators found inside the sculpture’s hollow cavities are bottles representing the five directions of the Buddhist universe. “It’s like the entire universe is contained within this sculpture,” Wilson says.