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Bodhisattvas and their jewels

Standing Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara is slightly larger than life-size and adorned in jewels.
Standing Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara is slightly larger than life-size and adorned in jewels.
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Friday, March 4, 2011

THE STORY BEHIND THE WORK

In Mahayana Buddhism, Bodhisattvas are people who have attained enlightenment, yet remain on Earth to guide others. Often, they're depicted as modest in manner and apparel. But two striking Bodhisattvas in the final room of "Echoes of the Past" wear crowns and garlands of jewels.

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"Bodhisattvas in China are often presented in regal terms," explains J. Keith Wilson, curator of ancient Chinese art at the Freer and Sackler galleries. He finds two things about the statues more interesting than their kingly attire. First, the Bodhisattvas' faces have "a Turkic ethnic character," which may reflect the heritage of the little-understood Northern Qi dynasty.

The other is that the figures, slightly larger than life-size, are roughly the same height as the Buddha they once flanked. Wilson calls this unusual and speculates that the similarity in scale was an attempt at "humanizing Budda." But he concedes that "it's a little perplexing. It's another of those Northern Qi mysteries."

- Mark Jenkins


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