October 2015: So Close to Heaven

/ Collections - Spotlight on the Collection

Eleven-headed Avalokitesvara. Tibet, 18th/19th century. Gilt copper alloy with inlaid turquoise and pigment. EX3.2013.7.
So Close to Heaven: Sacred Sculpture of Asia from the Weldon Collection

Sacred images are a vital part of many of the world’s religions. For example, painted and sculpted images of Mary and the infant Jesus provide a focal point during Christian prayer or worship, while Hindu artists portray gods and goddesses with multiple arms to remind believers of their ability to help many people with different problems at the same time. Because the divine being does not inhabit the earth, an image of that figure allows believers to connect with the deity.

In order to commune with the divine being, believers must be able to identify the image properly. To help viewers recognize people and stories, artists have developed iconography, a sort of visual shorthand. Iconography can include items carried by figures – for instance, St. Peter often holds keys, referring to his role as gatekeeper of heaven – or mudras (symbolic hand gestures) in Buddhist art. In So Close to Heaven: Sacred Sculpture of Asia from the Weldon Collection, currently on view at the Museum, various sculptures depict the Buddha, bodhisattvas, and other deities – but how does the viewer tell these figures apart from one another?

Though the term “buddha” identifies any person who has achieved nirvana – the state of enlightenment and release from earthly existence – it more often refers to Siddhartha Gautama, a Himalayan prince who renounced wealth and position in search of the true meaning of life. Bodhisattvas are individuals who have attained enlightenment but have chosen to remain on earth to help fellow Buddhists.

The Buddha has specific attributes that set him apart from a bodhisattva. He does not wear jewelry or elaborate clothing, since he gave up that lifestyle. He wears his hair in close-cropped  curls and has a bump on the top of his head (“all knowing”), a dot between his eyebrows (“all seeing”), and long earlobes (“all hearing”). Though these elements are the most common in an image of the Buddha, there are in fact 32 main characteristics and 80 secondary identifiers according to Buddhist scriptures.

The Buddha and bodhisattvas share some of these attributes, such as long earlobes, because they symbolize spiritual aspects of buddhahood. In contrast to the Buddha, however, bodhisattvas wear ornate crowns, jewels, and clothing, and often hold an object that identifies them. The bodhisattva Maitreya, called the “future Buddha,” holds a water vessel and often makes a hand gesture called Turning the Wheel of the Law, as it will be his duty to teach Buddhist law. The bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokitesvara, and his female counterpart, Tara, carry a lotus flower – a Buddhist symbol for purity in speech, body, and mind.

Bodhisattvas can serve as protectors and provide guidance. In the case of Avalokitesvara, his presence encourages Buddhists not only to express compassion outwardly but also to seek compassion in the everyday experiences of life and in the painful hurts of the world. These sacred sculptures reminded believers to continue striving for lives filled with compassion, wisdom, and enlightenment.

Explore more!

Visit the So Close to Heaven: Sacred Sculpture of Asia from the Weldon Collection smartguide feature to explore more works from the exhibition and to hear commentary from Dr. Don Wood, senior curator and curator of Asian art; Dr. Cathleen Cummings, professor of art history, University of Alabama at Birmingham; and Steven Frost, Chinese historian.

Read more!

Check out these resources to learn more about Buddhism, bodhisattvas, and Buddhist art.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History: Buddhism and Buddhist Art

Asian Art Museum: Development of the Buddha Image

Asian Art Museum: What Are the Main Branches of Buddhism?

Buddhist Art: Form &Meaning, Pratapaditya Pal, 2007