Conservation Project: Guanyin, Introduction

Conservation and Collections Management

In late 2014, conservators began the technical examination and treatment of the twelfth century Chinese sculpture, Guanyin, Bodhisattva of Compassion. The wooden sculpture, larger than life-size with painted and gilded decoration, came to the MFA in 1920 and was a beloved centerpiece of the Chinese galleries until 1999 when the sculpture was removed to storage due to ongoing condition problems. The goal of the current conservation project is to stabilize this important sculpture and allow it to be back on view in early 2016. Along with the treatment, a full technical examination and art historical research will be carried out to better understand the object, its history and its relationship to other examples of Chinese Buddhist sculpture.

The Sculpture

Guanyin, also known as Avalokitesvara in Sanskrit, is a Bodhisattva—a figure in Buddhism who attained enlightenment but chose to return to the human realm to assist others in reaching the state of nirvana. One of a handful of known examples in Europe and the Americas, the MFA’s Guanyin would have originally occupied a prominent space in a monastery, the subject of worship and prayer by individuals seeking mercy and salvation. The sculpture would have been surrounded by attendees and seated on a perch crafted from wood to represent the peak of Mount Potalaka, a mythical sacred summit of Guanyin’s “Pure Land.” The island of Mount Putuo, located off the coast of eastern China, takes its name from Mount Potalaka, and has been identified with Guanyin for over one thousand years.

sculpture of Guanyin, Bodhisattva of Compassion

An inscription on the back of the sculpture indicates that the figure came from northern China, from Jishan county in the southwestern region of the Shanxi Province. Guanyin’s seated and relaxed posture, gentle smile, and downward gaze are all indicative of a posture of “royal ease” that had its roots in India and in Jin dynasty China. The sculpture is carved from several blocks of wood and is decorated with gilded flesh and richly painted garments, heavy jewelry, and a crown ornamented with beads, lotus buds, and a small figure of the Amitabha Buddha.

Conservation Strategy

The initial phase of the project is a detailed examination to document the present condition. This includes photography both in visible light and with long-wave ultraviolet illumination to show areas of restoration. The construction of the wooden sculpture will be investigated with x-radiography to determine if the object is hollow or solid, how many pieces of wood were used, and how these were joined. Small wood samples will be taken for radiocarbon dating and wood identification.

A full study of the figure’s polychromy will also be undertaken, an effort complicated by centuries of repainting, as well as a dramatic restoration in the 1950s. Paint samples will be taken for analysis of cross sections and for identification of pigments, binders, varnish layers, and ground layers. This work will determine how many layers remain and if they are concurrent. It may then be possible to virtually recreate the design schemes at different stages in the sculpture’s history.

The treatment itself will focus on setting down lifting paint, stabilizing cracks and loose elements, and possibly removing or reintegrating modern restorations. The goal of the treatment is not to bring the sculpture back to an “original state,” but to stabilize its current condition so that it can safely return to public view. When treatment is complete, the sculpture will be displayed in an exhibition case with microclimate to ensure a stable environment.