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Exceptional Guanyin resurfaces after being kept half a century in a private collection
The beautiful sculpture presented in this auction is androgynous, as many representations of Guanyin in China during the Song Dynasty.


PARIS.- On December 16, Leclere – Maison de ventes will offer an exceptional Guanyin at Drouot. The polychrome wood sculpture, with traces of gold, was realised in China during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). The work resurfaces after being kept half a century by the heirs of Mr. Raufast, who acquired it in the 1960’s. (Estimate €1,5M / €2M).

Guanyin is a Bodhisattva; he is one who has attained enlightenment but who has deferred entering nirvana. Female or male, old or young, Guanyin is the savior of mankind, born of a ray of light gushed from the Bouddha Amitabha’s eye. This androgynous character is intimately linked to this Bouddha, embodying him as a figure of condolence.

A leg elevated, the other one pending, the right arm on the upper knee, Guanyin stands in the position of water moon . This attitude refers to an episode in the Soutra Avatamsaka which tells the young Sudhana’s pilgrimage. In his quest for Truth and Justice, he visits 53 masters. Guanyin is the 28th. When he joins the wise on his island, he finds him, sitted on a rock, meditating and watching the moon’s reflection in the water. It embodies the illusory nature of many things of the world.

The beautiful sculpture presented in this auction is androgynous, as many representations of Guanyin in China during the Song Dynasty. The character’s divine state is reminded by the urna – a tuft of hair in the center of the forhead. The lack of paint around a perforation on the front of the bun probably indicates there was a miniature picture of Bouddha Amitabha; one of the Guanyin’s main features.

Guanyin is seated in rajalilasana (position of royal ease), most likely originally on a rock, missing today. Her left arm is resting on the rock while a right arm sits delicately on her bent right knee, giving her a particularly relaxed attitude. She is wearing a pleated dhoti, tied under the belly and covering her legs. The monastic scarf resting on her left shoulder reveals her torso adorned with a flower necklace, similar to the long one made of pearls and flowers adorning the folds of the garment covering her legs. The serene face and half-closed eyes show her meditative state, she raises a slight smile. The divine character on Guanyin is reminded by the urna - one of the thirty-three marks of the Buddha, a tuft of hair often figured as a jewel - on the middle of her forehead. The thin strands of her hair are gathered backwards, making a high knot pulled together with a ribbon. A lack of paint and a bored hole on the front of the top knot might indicate that a miniature image of the Buddha Amitabha -now missing- was placed there, as it is one of the main attributes of Guanyin.

This sculpted image of Guanyin is to be added to the short list if the fine painted wood sculptures of the deity showed in the royal ease position, made during the early period of the famous Song dynasty (960-1279).

A strong spirituality emerges from the beautiful face of the boddhisattva, and from her attitude - seen in the middle of a deep meditation- intended to help the watcher to reach the same state of awakening, Enlightment and serenity. The splendour and the beauty pervading this Guanyin show the importance given to the making of these sculptures but also the considerable influence of the cult of this deity in China during this period.

The buddhist deity Guanyin (Avalokitesvara in sanskrit) is here represented seated in a version of the posture called royal ease (rajalilasana or lalitasana in sanskrit). It consists in one leg bent (usually the right one) while the other one remains unfolded. This posture, with the right arm placed on the bent knee allows us to recognize the “water moon” form of Guanyin (Shuiyue guanyin in Chinese). This posture is linked to an episode in which the boddhisattva is seen in her island - her personal paradise, mount Potalaka, identified as a mount Putuo, on a island in the Zhejiang1 province- seated on rocks, surrounded by water in front of a bamboo grove.

The origin of the iconography takes its source from buddhist scriptures, more specifically the ones referring to Guanyin. Among these are the Avatamsaka sutra (Huayan jing, sutra of the flower adornment) and the Lotus sutra (Fahua jing). From the latter, a sutra specifically devoted to Guanyin (Guanyin sutra) was extracted and then copied. Some of these copies were found in the Dunhuang caves, which are also the place where the oldest known and dated painting of Guanyin in “water moon” form was revealed. It is today kept at the Muse Guimet, in Paris (see Ill.1. Date de 943, ninv MG17775)2. In the lotus sutra, Guanyin in considered as the universal saviour, and can embody different forms, male or female, old or young, depending on the needs of the people seeking rescue3. The Avatamsaka sutra (flower adornment sutra) also contains elements of the origin of this iconography. The Gandavyuha, a chapter of the sutra, describes the pilgrimage of young Sudhana. In his quest for truth and wisdom, he meets fifty-three masters4, Guanyin being the twenty-eighth. Sudhana visits the deity in her island, mount Potalaka, and receives her teachings, Guanyin preaching the Dharma5. In this sutra, Guanyin is the savior of beings facing numerous perils, similar to the ones described in the Lotus sutra (fire, water, drowning, murders etc). The images of Guanying in both of these sutra tend to merge into one, especially from the end of the Tang dynasty, as it is visible on the Dunhuang6 paintings.

The specific “water moon” iconography does not have a proper written source, even if its origin can be traced back to the aformentioned texts. The image of Guanyin on her island as Sudhana finds her was translated into pictures, firstly in Dunhuang, by a vision showing the deity surrounded by water, seated in lalitasana in front of a bamboo grove, meditating upon the reflection of the moon in the water. Paintings such as the one at the muse Guimet - the Guanyin in the lower right corner surrounded by a wide white halo probably symbolizing the moon- adopt this representation. This iconography had already been cited by Zhang Yanyuan in his inventory of famous painters7, in which he mentions an 8th century painting (now missing) of Guanyin surrounded by the full moon and bamboos, made by Zhou Fang8.

The theme of moon and water, more precisely the reflection of the moon on the water is a metaphor symbolizing the illusory nature of phenomena. This notion is discussed in sutra comments or in eulogies relative to paintings showing the Shuiyue Guanyin, it expresses the fleeting character of things in this world9. Even if this metaphor is quite common in Buddhism, no link is clearly made in the scriptures with Guanyin. It therefore seems that this association between Guanyin and the theme of moon and water was due the the inventiveness of Chinese artists10, who merged the metaphor dear to Buddhist philosophy with the very propitious vision of the deity meditating on her island.

The figure of Guanyin is also intimately linked to the Buddha Amitabha. She is to be “born” from a ray of light gushed from the right eye of that Buddha11. Thus, just like Amitabha, Guanyin is revered as a figure of compassion. This tight relation gave birth to images where Guanyin is represented along Amitabha with Dashizhi, but more importantly is the origin of one of the most important attributes of Guanyin: a miniature image of the Buddha Amitabha is held on the front of her top knot.

An important aspect of Guanyin as a specifically Chinese deity also marks her difference with the Indian Avalokitesvara : its transformation from a male to a female deity. The change of gender is a Chinese creation, and does not seem to find its source in Buddhist scriptures. It is quite hard to trace back when this change happened, but it seems to have progressively made its way from the Song dynasty, the earlier images showing the deity as male with a mustache, in the Dunhuang caves for instance12. It can also be linked to the pilgrimages and the miracles stories that progressively spread into Chinese culture. The female forms of Guanyin such as the “water moon” Guanyin, the “southern seas” Guanyin or the “white dress” Guanyin were at first linked to specific localities, but merged little by little. It is the reason why some of the early images already seem rather feminine, while some other remained more androgynous, as the sculpture we see here.


1 Y, Chn-fang, 1994. Guanyin: the Chinese Transformation of Avalokiteshvara in WEIDNER, Marsha et al., Latter Days of the Law, Images of Chinese Buddhism, 850-1850. p. 156 ESKENAZI, 2014, Chinese sculpture c.500 – 1500, p. 102. 2 YY, Chn-fang, 1994, p. 152 et 156. ESKENAZI, 2014, Chinese sculpture c.500 – 1500, p. 102. 3Ibid, p.152 4Ibid, p.163 5Ibid, p.153 6Ibid, p.153 7Zhang Yanyuan, Record of Famous Painters of Successive Dynasties, prface de 847 in Y, Chn-fang, 1994, p.156 8Y, Chn-fang, 1994, p.156 9Ibid, p.156-157 10Ibid, p.157 11ESKENAZI, 2014, p. 102. 12Ibid, p.102





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