Standing Bodhisattva

  • Discovered in Boxing County, Shandong Province, China
  • China, Late Northern Wei - Eastern Wei period
  • ca. 525 - 550
  • Limestone with traces of polychrome
  • H-120.5
    Shandong Province, China
Catalogue Entry

This magnificent bodhisattva's head, body, complete nimbus, floating scarves (known as ten-ne in Japanese), as well as the now-lost forearms, apparently were carved from one piece of limestone. The figure exudes dignity and a benign strength, and its strong, columnar form has been softened by the modeling of the drapery, the richness of the decorative elements, and a gentle S-shaped curve of the body―visible only from the side―produced by a forward thrusting of the neck and lower belly. The pleated drapery patterns on the lower garment (a high-waisted dhoti or mo) are depicted in narrow, parallel lines and very low planar relief, but they still define the slight protrusion of the lower belly and the roundness of both legs on the front of the image, the swell of which are further emphasized by the long thin scarves and thick strings of beads looping down from the shoulders to below the knees and crossing the stomach in an X, punc-tuated with a large hemispherical "jewel." On the back, there is a pattern of wave-form pleats falling symmetrically from the center; a bi-shaped disc marks the crossing of the scarves.

The large hemispherical jewel and two small discs, one on each shoulder, are connected by chains of beads and form a triangle that draws attention to the bodhisattva's extraordinary face and nimbus. The richness of the drapery patterns, the bead chains, and the necklaces create a striking contrast to the starkness of the nimbus, face, and crown. Stunningly austere, the nimbus has a wide undecorated band enclosing the edge, and concentric layered rings, culminating in a petaled lotus framing the crowned head. On the back of the nimbus, concentric layered rings decorate the outer edge and frame a petaled lotus with a plain disc at the center. The square head―which sits on a short columnar neck―has a face with rounded, almost fleshy cheeks; sharply defined, chiseled features; and an "archaic" smile; it supports a simple crown with a cicada-shaped decoration at the center.

At first glance, the sculptural treatment and decorative embellishments appear to have been based on the styles in the Longmen caves, Henan province, during the Northern Wei dynasty. The large circular nimbus and fleshiness of the face can be seen in the Guyang and Binyan caves at Longmen, which date from the end of the Northern Wei. At the same time, the stylistic features also reflect images dating from the end of the Northern Wei dynasty from the Maijishan cave temples in Gansu, whether the cross-legged bodhisattva images on the right wall of Cave 142 or the attendant bodhisattva in the niche on the main wall of Cave 27 that dates to the Western Wei dynasty (A.D. 535-551).*1 The Shumei figure's nimbus, in particular, parallels three Northern Wei images: the central image in a standing stone triad dated to A.D. 525 in the Fuji'I Yurinkan collection in Kyoto; the Shakyamuni triad dated to 534 in the Freer Gallery in Washington, D.C.; and the central image of a stone triad dated to 525 in the Shandong Provincial Museum in Jinan.*2 On the back of the nimbus, the depiction of the beautiful lotus flower with its double layer of single petals and large central pad recalls the lotus on the head nimbus of the central figure of the standing stone triad dated 545 (Eastern Wei dynasty) in the Zhu Cheng County Museum in central Shandong.*3 Furthermore, it is stylistically comparable to the Buddha triad dated to 544 in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.*4

Another noteworthy characteristic of this superb sculpture is the cicada-shaped decoration on the front of the crown. To date, there are no other known Chinese Buddhist sculptural examples of this kind. However, cicada images can be found on gold mountain-shaped crown plaques that also are embellished with thin gold wire and granulation; these have been excavated from the tomb of Ping Sufu of the Northern Yan period (A.D. 409-436), and seated Buddha images were molded onto the back face of these crown ornaments.*5 These excavated materials would have been made some one hundred years before the present image and suggest that there were members of the aristocracy who revered Bud-dhism and hid Buddha images on the backs of their crowns. This suggests the possibility that the Shumei bodhisattva, with a cicada in place of a Buddha image, was created at the request of a member of the aristocracy who revered Bud-dhism and believed in the philosophy that the Emperor is the living Buddha, which may have dated back to the Northern court.*6

Finally, the stylistic characteristics of this extraordinary bodhisattva sculpture share certain elements with sculptures of the Asuka period (A.D. 538-645) in Japan, such as the Yumedono Kannon and the Kudara Kannon, both images of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, and the bronze Shitenno (four heavenly kings) images from Horyuji. Further research will be required to explore this relationship. HK

1 Art Institute of Maijishan 1987, pl. 110, p. 154.
2 Matsubara 1995, pls. 166b, 200, 232.
3 Ibid., pl. 286.
4 Kaigai ichin 1979, pl. 35.
5 Two examples of these gold plaques with cicada images have been excavated from tombs in northern nomadic states: one in an Earlier Chin grave at Dunhuang, Gansu province, which can be dated to A.D. 369 (see Kaogu 1974.3, pl. 7, no. 3), and two in an early fifth-century Northern Yan grave in Liaoning (see Wenwu 1973.3, p. 25, figs, 2, 3, 6). The beautiful example in the Minneapolis Institute of Art shows the cicada embellished with gold wire and granulation, but has no Buddha image on the back: see Juliano 1975, p. 32, no. 10.
6 It is important to note that of the thirteen emperors depicted in the famous Portraits of the Emperors scroll attributed to the Tang-period court artist Yan Liben (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), six have crowns with cicada ornaments.