In Buddhism, bodhisattvas are individuals who have attained enlightenment but have delayed entering nirvana in favor of remaining on earth to assist others with their own quests to do so. They perform a central role in Vajrayana (esoteric) Buddhism by administering the moral lessons of the Buddha and are frequently represented in paintings and sculpture in Tibet.
This head of a bodhisattva embodies the lively gesso tradition in the arts of Tibet. The smooth contours of the face have been naturalistically modeled out of gesso that has then been gilded and painted in the standard fashion of the time. The facial features are crisply rendered to show the eyes as narrow and downcast, the nose as broad and flat, and the lips as pursed and painted red. The brow is surmounted by an elaborate crown with scrolling foliate designs and rosettes along the border and three vertical protrusions, each in the shape of a lotus bud, at the ears and forehead. Following a Tibetan convention that is also used for gilt-bronze sculptures, the hair has been colored a vibrant lapis lazuli blue. The presence of lakshanas (auspicious symbols of the Buddha’s enlightenment)—specifically the elongated ears denoting his previous princely life and the ushnisha (cranial bump)—identify this figure as a bodhisattva; the absence of the urna (a tuft of hair between the eyebrows; one of the thirty-two signifiers of a great man) indicates that the image is not of the Buddha proper.