Guanyin is the Buddhist deity of mercy and compassion, answering the cries of those who suffer in this world. Her home and paradise are thought to be in the Southern Seas. Since about the tenth century, Putuo Shan, an island off the eastern coast of China, believed to be this paradise, has been a major pilgrimage site for Guanyin worship. Even today, thousands of people flock to this island to offer prayers and ask for help.
In this sculpture we see Guanyin seated on a lotus throne surrounded by clouds and mist. With palm trees, worshippers, and waves below, the full moon shines above. The faces of the figures have been left unglazed in contrast to the soft sea-foam green-colored glaze that covers the rest of this elaborate setting.
This sculpture may depict a legend that tells of the visit of Sudhana to the Guanyin of the Southern Seas. Sudhana was a youth from India who set out in search of enlightenment. He studied with a variety of teachers, including Guanyin of the Southern Seas. After meeting with Guanyin and having many discussions, Sudhana made great progress in his quest. This tale was particularly popular in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) when this sculpture was made.
This sculpture is featured in the Museum’s current exhibition, Afterlife: Asian Art from the Weldon Collection.