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HOME : Chinese Art : Ming Dynasty : Ming Lacquered Wood Guanyin
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Ming Lacquered Wood Guanyin - TF.014
Origin: China
Circa: 1368 AD to 1644 AD
Dimensions: 33" (83.8cm) high x 19.50" (49.5cm) wide
Collection: Chinese Art
Medium: Wood

Location: Great Britain
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Upon leading a victorious rebellion against the foreign Mongol rulers of the Yuan Dynasty, a peasant named Zhu Yuanzhang seized control of China and founded the Ming Dynasty in 1368. As emperor, he founded his capital at Nanjing and adopted the name Hongwu as his reign title. Hongwu, literally meaning “vast military,” reflects the increased prestige of the army during the Ming Dynasty. Due to the very realistic threat still posed by the Mongols, Hongwu realized that a strong military was essential to Chinese prosperity. Thus, the orthodox Confucian view that the military was an inferior class to be ruled over by an elite class of scholars was reconsidered. During the Ming Dynasty, China proper was reunited after centuries of foreign incursion and occupation. Ming troops controlled Manchuria, and the Korean Joseon Dynasty respected the authority of the Ming rulers, at least nominally.

Like the founders of the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.- 220 A.D.), Hongwu was extremely suspicious of the educated courtiers that advised him and, fearful that they might attempt to overthrow him, he successfully consolidated control of all aspect of government. The strict authoritarian control Hongwu wielded over the affairs of the country was due in part to the centralized system of government he inherited from the Mongols and largely kept intact. However, Hongwu replaced the Mongol bureaucrats who had ruled the country for nearly a century with native Chinese administrators. He also reinstituted the Confucian examination system that tested would-be civic officials on their knowledge of literature and philosophy. Unlike the Song Dynasty (960-1279 A.D.), which received most of its taxes from mercantile commerce, the Ming economy was based primarily on agriculture, reflecting both the peasant roots of its founder as well as the Confucian belief that trade was ignoble and parasitic.

A representation of Ming ideals and its cultural austerity, this graceful and serene sculpture depicts Guanyin, one of the most popular of all Bodhisattvas, whose name literally means 'the one who always hears sounds'. In the Buddhist religion, bodhisattvas are souls who have attained enlightenment and no longer need to reincarnate, but forsake nirvana and choose to remain on earth to alleviate the suffering of others. Known in China as 'the compassionate Bodhisattva', who listens to every prayer, Guanyin was often placed behind the main Buddha image in a temple or flanking a figure of the Buddha himself. The fine carving and beautiful surface decoration lend the image its power, while the layers of pigment reveal interesting scientific and historical detail.

Seated atop a cloaked lotus in Rajalila Asana, with the right knee raised and the left leg in the usual position of Buddha, this Guanyin is shown in a moment of quiet repose. Right arm hanging over the knee while the left steadies the balance, this Guanyin appears relaxed, though not quite eternally still. In humble garb save for the precious-stone necklace, bracelet, drape of surplice, and crown depicting Amitabha, this bodhisattva’s aura lacks intimidation and invites quiet contemplation and meditation. Furthering this lessening of severity is a softness in the facial features, which is enabled by a naturalism in the cheeks, lips, and nose as well as the archaic folds in the bodhisattva’s neck. The typical red and green pigment is slightly faded with the ravages of time, but nonetheless, the Guanyin is a valuable and historically significant piece for collectors and scholars alike. - (TF.014)


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