Chinese, 14th century, Yuan or Early Ming
Carved wood (tilia sp., lime), gesso and polychrome
Dimensions: 117 x 73 x 46 cm
Our Luohan sits cross-legged in the lotus posture, the conventional attitude of meditation. The right hand is raised as though in a gesture of emphasis while the open left hand is held just above his ankle suggesting the dhyana (meditation) position. The spine, together with the whole upper part of the body, is held straight and upright indicating the inner axis that sustains meditation. There is nothing artificial in the body which is naturalistic and well proportioned: posture, head and hands together express one thought. His gaze, through lowered eyelids is severe, quizzical, and compassionate. His attention is inwardly focused while at the same time directly engages the onlooker.
He appears to be a man of young middle-age still at the height of his physical power, the shaved head a ‘salt and pepper’ mixture of dark and grey. His face and other visible parts of his body are white, traditionally symbolising wisdom. The large nose and full lips appear quite naturalistic, the lower face muscles drawn in the hint of a smile. The thyroid cartilage (Adam's Apple) and the adjacent tendons are clearly articulated. The long bushy eyebrows, large ears with extended earlobes and the protuberance on the forehead (urna) are features sometimes associated with ‘foreign’, i.e. Indian, monks, but our Luohan is altogether Chinese and we may understand the physiognomic exaggerations are indications of his highly developed spiritual powers.
His elaborate and richly decorated outer garment (jiasha) is the patched robe, characteristic of Buddhist monastic tradition, signifying poverty. Its imagery, consisting of animals, clouds and flowers, corresponds to examples found in Chinese textile art. The robe is draped over his left arm and shoulder, the torso and the lower part of his body, but falls away from the right arm and shoulder, ‘a symbol that he is trying to save sentient beings’ . The swirl of the drapery is calm and rhythmic, covering his crossed legs and dropping below the knees, while the sense of the body beneath is dignified and natural. The square ‘patches’ are painted either pink or with white cloud patterns on a light grey-brown ground with a double border of blue and pale-blue stripes. Between the stripes and along the broad hem is a continuous scroll of dragon-like mythical animals. These playful creatures in red on a green ground are joined head-to-tail providing continuous, though unobtrusive, rhythm and movement. Such combinations of animal and cloud motifs are of long established tradition in Chinese painting. Beneath the jiasha he wears a pale pink-brown jacket snugly folded across the chest and generously hemmed with a wide band of chrysanthemums drawn in black against a cream-white ground. Beneath the robe we see the edges of a white under-jacket.
Cult and status of Luohans
While there are many examples in public collections of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas of the period of our statue, Luohans are rarer and only a few can be found in museums in Europe and America. For scholars and amateurs this field of study is dominated by the nine larger than life-size Luohans from Yixian (see "Comparisons" section below).
Luohan is the Chinese word (Sanskrit Arhat, Pali Arahant/, Japanese, Rakkan) for a Buddhist monk who has gained the highest level of spiritual attainment or 'self-realisation', achieved through meditation and practice of the dharma, the Buddha’s teaching on the nature of Reality. They have been described as 'half saint, half Taoist adept, the mountain-dwelling hsien (benevolent spirits), their natures attuned to the workings of the Tao, who lived in isolation'. [Luohan] ‘was originally used to describe any individual, including the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, and some of his famous disciples, who had reached an advanced but not perfected state of spiritual development. Over time Arhats came to be understood as the protectors of Buddhism who kept its practices alive between the time of Shakyamuni's death and the advent of Maitreya, the Buddha of the future. In addition, in some texts, such as the Lotus Sutra, Arhats are the equivalent of Bodhisattvas and, like Bodhisattvas, are thought to have achieved enlightenment. ‘“Be a lamp unto yourselves” was the Buddha’s last advice to his disciples . . . Thus he gave the Arhat the ideal of individual achievement of enlightenment, wisdom and salvation. This austere and somewhat lonely career required the monkish life and was represented by the image of the monk in art . . . Later renderings for their own sake or as vehicles for expression are among the wittiest, most eccentric, most telling portraiture in the art of eastern Asia’.
Originally they were the sixteen disciples of the Buddha, later increased to eighteen and later still to 500. (Some people see a parallel between Luohans and how Christians think of the Evangelists and the Twelve Apostles.) After the Buddha himself the Luohans were the first figures around whom cults of veneration and imagery developed. In sculpture the iconography is fully developed in China by the 10th century. Their cult in painting reaches its full flowering in the Southern Song period (1127-1279). Each one represents a specific human type; indeed, it is their individuality, with its identifiable and sometimes eccentric characteristics that makes the Luohans so striking and often so appealing. Painters and sculptors emphasise their humanity so that they are seen as ‘dignified, ordinary, though idealised monks’. In some cases their supernatural aspects are emphasised by giving them ‘exaggerating physiognomic characteristics … overgrown eyebrows, dark beards, extremely long earlobes … as if the body had paid the price for his intense efforts to become enlightened. The result is individualised, expressive portraits, which, in a roundabout way, also reinforce the ontological status of the [Luohans] as beings in and of this world’.
Buddhism came to China in the first centuries AD from India. In the period up to the 10th century images of the Luohans were often portrayed as somewhat strange types. Later (i.e. from the 12th to 14th centuries) they evolved into a 'more restrained and far more purely Chinese type, and it was this latter that was sculptured with insight by the master craftsmen working for the temples of the North'. The same authors go on to say that 'if the facial expressions of the high gods were generalised to raise them above the human level, the emphasis on the individuality of the Luohans offered a rich field for portraiture and dramatic realism . . .'
No study of a Luohan of the period between the Tang and Ming dynasties (11th-14th centuries) can proceed very far without reference to the glazed pottery group from Yixian (formerly Yizhou) widely admired for their power and beauty and which many scholars date to the 12th century. They can be seen in the Metropolitan Museum (Figs. 3, 4), the Penn Museum (Fig. 5) the British Museum (Fig. 6), the Nelson-Atkins Museum, the Guimet Museum (Fig. 7), the Royal Ontario Museum, the Boston Fine Arts Museum and - recently discovered, or rediscovered - in the Hermitage. Since their first appearance in the West some hundred years ago this group has been attributed to dates ranging from Tang to Ming but consensus has mainly settled on the Liao dynasty (916–1125). Recent thermoluminescence tests of the statues in Philadelphia and New York produced a midpoint date of 1210 i.e. the Jin or possibly Song dynasty. However, all this may change in the light of new research by the scholar Dr Eileen Hsiang-ling Hsu (In Chinese fashion:許 Hsu 湘苓 Hsiang-ling), first presented in a lecture in 2014 at Wesleyan University Centre for the Arts, Monks in Glaze: Workshop, Patronage and Iconography of Large Luohan Statues in North China. Dr Hsu offers compelling new evidence to date the Yixian Luohans to the early Ming period. The Ming dynasty begins in 1365 and the term date for our Luohan, according to radiocarbon dating, is 1402 or 1403. It is this overlap that allows for an attribution to the Ming dynasty and which suggests that our Luohan and the Yixian group are contemporary. Dr Rosemary Scott, in a lengthy article for Christie’s, concurs with the Ming attribution.
The rarity of our statue, in carved wood and polychrome, allows for few close comparisons but a statue, attributed to the Yuan dynasty and thus quite near in date to our figure, is the Luohan in the Santa Barbara Museum. We note the same white for the body, the broad nose, bushy eyebrows, large ears, contained smile and the
protuberance on the forehead. There are sufficient traces of pigment on the Santa Barbara figure, for example the floral design on the hem of the robe, to suggest that it was once as elaborately and colourfully robed as ours and (Figs. 8, 8a).
A gilded wood and gesso figure of Dhrtasrashtra in the Royal Ontario Museum, the same size as the Temple Gallery’s Luohan has impasto surface patterning similar to ours (Figs. 9, 9a).
Figure 10 shows the head of a Luohan exhibited in Paris in 2000 attributed to the Song period (960-1279). We note the protuberance on the forehead, the bushy eyebrows, the broad fleshy nose, the half smile slightly higher on one side of the face, the similarity of the ears and the articulation of neck muscles and Adam's apple. Fig. 11 is a carved wood head of a Luohan, thought to represent Kasyapa, in the Shanghai Museum. It is attributed to the Tang period (608-906) though this seems rather early.
Two statues of Luohans, one in the Victoria & Albert Museum (Fig. 12) and one in the Rijksmuseum (Fig. 13), both ascribed to the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) show the typical state of Chinese monumental statues of this period where little of their original colour has survived. The V&A figure though bearing ‘traces of paint’ is effectively stripped to the bare wood, the fate of the majority of monumental wood statues of this period. Fig. 13 is described as ‘painted and lacquered wood.’ Again, little of the original colour is apparent. These figures also show the extent to which artists could express individuality and character in Luohans.
An attractive feature of our Luohan is the continuous pattern of animals with lithe bodies and long tails on the edges of the jiasha (fig. 1c). I am grateful to Dr Hsu who writes ‘I have more or less concluded that it represents the auspicious "lions playing with an embroidered ball." The phrase may first appear in a Song (11th-13th centuries) text . . . but its visual rendition seems to have become popular in the Yuan and Ming, although I have not yet found any Yuan examples. According to popular tradition, when a lion and a lioness are playing with an embroidered ball, cubs will emerge from the loosened ribbons or threads ̶ hence a good luck symbol. Lion is also a symbol of the Buddha Sakyamuni, so it is natural that it would appear on a Buddhist sculpture’. In the case of your Luohan’s jiasha decoration, the ribbons in the animals' mouths, their four claws, and their big eyes link them to the above-mentioned motif. (I am wondering if they are baby lions?) The animals' long tails and fluttering ribbons may have been exaggerated to accommodate the narrow and long space of the hems.
This Luohan was unknown until its discovery in 2012 and there is no record of its history prior to its appearance in a sale at Rosebery's in south London, (Lot 1388, sale of June 19th, 2012) where it was described as ‘A large Chinese lacquered polychrome Buddha upon stand, 19th century and later’ (not illustrated).
Western collecting of Chinese art began in the last decades of the 19th century when men like Emile Guimet, after whom is named the well-known museum in Paris, were active. But it was after the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1912 and in particular during the Chinese Civil War (1927-1937) that many Buddhist sculptures were brought from their original temples to the cities and sold to Chinese and foreign collectors. At a sale at Hotel Drouot in Paris in 1932 one collection alone contained no less than 38 large wooden sculptures mostly of the 12th and 13th centuries. 'If one multiplies this number by the total of collectors and dealers handling sculptures in those years one may understand why many museum collections in America and in Europe contain fine wooden sculptures'. Later, during the Cultural Revolution (1966 and 1967), China's historical sites and works of art again suffered 'devastating damage'. Many artifacts were seized from private homes and museums and destroyed or taken abroad. However, given the condition of our Luohan before conservation, it is highly likely to have travelled to the West in the 1920s.
It is against this background that our Luohan's transit from China to London should be considered. Its dark appearance before recent cleaning (Fig. 1d) and the generally poor visual impression it gave may explain how it had remained unrecognised throughout most of the 20th century.
Condition and conservation
Fig. 1d shows the condition of the Luohan at its first appearance in a South London auction house. Soon after, it was shown to a conservator and specialist in Chinese art who investigated the possibility of cleaning the statue; that is to say, of removing what appeared to be darkened layers of shellac and bituminous varnish. His initial test (Fig. 1f) revealed areas of apparently original and well preserved pigment under layers of later over-painting, coatings of paper and discoloured varnish. Figures 1f - 1h) show stages of the conservation and restoration work.
Fig. 1e shows the upper shellac surfaces (but not the right arm and not the face) partially cleaned by the conservator, but much of the original paint is still invisible under intermediate layers of later additions. (Photo: James Beaton of Creative Workshop.) At this stage the conservator, after careful assessment, concluded that enough of the original polychrome, perhaps eighty per cent of the original colour, remained and we decided to go for a full restoration. In fact, about forty per cent of the original colour is in good condition – already a far greater proportion of what can be seen on any other similar statue; another forty percent, though certainly there, needed strengthening (e.g. 1h). About twenty per cent was lost and needed restoration.
1. Petra Rosch citing numerous authors in Chinese Wood Sculptures of the 11th to 13th Centuries, ibidem-Verlag, Stuttgart, 2007, p. 48.
2. According to the Theravada Vinaya-pitaka of the Pali Canon, the Buddha asked his cousin and attendant Ananda, to sew a robe in the pattern of a rice field. Ananda sewed strips of cloth representing rice paddies into a pattern separated by narrower strips to represent paths, and the pattern has been repeated on monks' robes in most schools of Buddhism ever since.
4. For a note on painting dragon in Chinese art see Zhang Hongxing ed. Masterpieces of Chinese Painting 700-1900, V&A Publishing, 2013, p. 198. However, the animals in our Luohan's jaisha may not be dragons. For discussion see below, p. 11.
5. Feng Zhao. Treasures in Silk, Hong Kong, 199, p. 84.
6. Image taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yixian_glazed_pottery_luohans.
7. Laurence Sickmann and Alexander Soper, The Art and Architecture of China, Yale University Press, 1971, p. 198. (First published by Penguin in 1956).
8. Leidy, Strahan, Becker et al. Wisdom Embodied, Chinese Buddhist and Daoist Sculpture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2010, p. 112.
9. Doris Dohrenwend in Homage to Heaven Homage to Earth, Chinese Treasures of the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, 1992, p. 154.
10. Zhang Hongxing ed. Masterpieces of Chinese Painting 700-1900, V&A Publishing, 2013, p. 176.
11. Linrothe, p. 16.
12. I have been guided by two essays that are helpful to the understanding of the cult in China and elsewhere of the Luohans: 1. Rob Linrothe, ‘Arhats: Human Monks, Enlightened Immortals’ and ‘Early Arhat Imagery: the Raw and the Cooked’ in Painted Plumage, Chinese Connections in Tibetan Arhat Painting, Rubin Museum of Art, New York 2004; 2. Sarah Wong ‘Buddhist Worthies: Sculptural Depictions and Disciples in Chinese Art, c. 500 – 1500’ in Eskenazi Chinese Sculpture c. 500 – 1500, London 2014.
13. Laurence Sickmann and Alexander Soper, The Art and Architecture of China, Yale University Press, 1971, p. 199. (First published by Penguin in 1956).
15. A good summary of these can be seen at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yixian_glazed_pottery_luohans. See also Leidy and Strahan et al., Wisdom Embodied, Metropolitan Museum, 2010. pp. 112-116
16. See ‘History in the Art World’ at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yixian_glazed_pottery_luohans
17. Between 907 and 1279, the period known as Five Dynasties and the Ten Kingdoms, China was broken up by internal rivalries and external pressure in the North from the Mongols. For a succinct picture of the period see http://etcweb.princeton.edu/asianart/timeperiod_china.jsp?ctry=China&pd=Song|Liao|Jin
18. Dr Hsu’s Book Monks in Glaze will be published by Brill in early 2016. She states ‘We now have substantial epigraphic and historical records, primary sources not previously examined, and important in situ architectural ceramics, allowing us to trace the emergence of large glazed ceramic sculptures in later imperial periods within the art-historical and institutional context of liuli glazed tile work. Careful studies of the seminal development of the Luohan cult in south China and its subsequent spread to the rest of China and Tibet have also rendered the Liao attribution tenuous’. I am grateful to Dr Hsu for making parts of the MS of her book available to me.
19. ‘A Recently Discovered Important early Ming Sculpture’ Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works Art, Christie’s, 10 November 2105, pp. 201-207.
20. Barbara Stephen et al. Homage to Heaven, Homage to Earth, University of Toronto Press, 1992. p. 183.
21. Jacques Barrière, Art d'Extrême Orient, Paris, 2000, p. 30
24. Personal email
25. Petra Rösch, op. cit. p. 200ff
26. Larson and Kerr p. 12.
27. The work has been undertaken in the light of two publications: 1. John Larson and Rose Kerr, Guanyin a Masterpiece Revealed, Victoria and Albert Museum, London 1985, a detailed account of the methods and techniques employed in the cleaning and restoration of the celebrated figure on display in the museum (room 47); 2. Ancient Chinese Sculpture from the Alsdorf Collection and Others. Eskenazi, 12 June - 6 July 1990. This catalogue includes The ‘Conservation of a Guanyin Figure’, an extensive technical account by Sophie Budden and Valerie Kaufman of Plowden Smith Ltd.