In Buddhism, a bodhisattva is an individual who has attained enlightenment but has delayed entering nirvana in order to assist those on earth who have not yet done so. Large numbers of oversized sculptures of bodhisattvas, especially in bronze, were created in China as objects of devotion to inspire others to continue their own spiritual journey. These sculptures were often lavishly gilded to protect the surface as well as to heighten the viewer’s awareness of the importance of the objects as valued works of art and as symbols of spiritual development.
This seated bodhisattva is one such example. Depicted in a classic yoga position, the figure is seated on a removable base cast in the shape of a lotus flower with its petals upturned. The lotus, one of the bajixiang (Eight Buddhist Emblems), has long been a favored element in Buddhist art as a symbol of purity. Several other symbols are used to convey the theme of inner serenity that pervades this sculpture. The fingers of the oversized hands, framing the peaceful features of the face, are shown in the uttarabodhimudra (gesture of pure enlightenment). The upturned soles of the feet display the dharmachakra (wheel of the law) symbolizing the Buddha’s first sermon. The wan motif (literally, ten thousand years), a direct reference to eternity, is to be seen on the chest of the bodhisattva. (This motif is often confused with the swastika as adopted, in a slightly different form, by such Western movements as Nazism.) The unification of all these elements provides a compelling example of Ming-dynasty craftsmanship that upholds the high standards of China’s hallowed bronzeworking tradition.