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Eleven-Headed Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, 17th-18th century, Tibet
Eleven-Headed Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara
, 17th-18th century
Figure 1, Eleven-Headed Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara
The Art Institute of Chicago
Photo © 2011, The Art Institute of Chicago.
Eleven-Headed Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara
Country of Origin: Tibet
Date: c. 17th-18th century
Size: 34.6 x 17.9 x 7.4 cm
Accession number: 1984.1496
Medium: Bronze with gold, paint, and stone
Current Location: The Art Institute of Chicago
Art has always played an important role in religion. It functions to both teach and transport the viewer. This is true of Buddhist art, as we will see through the consideration of the Tibetan statue of Avalokiteshvara pictured above. Known as Chenrezi in Tibet, this statue depicts the Bodhisattva of Compassion in one of his various forms (Lipton and Ragnubs, 1996, p. 114). The reverence for Avalokiteshvara is shared by many Buddhists throughout Asia, namely India, which direcly and indirectly is the most influential source for both Buddhist religion and art in Tibet (Lipton and Ragnubs,1996, p.19). Avalokiteshvara is also an important figure in the two most influential schools of Buddhism in Tibet, Mahayana and Vajrayana (Kossak and and Singer, 1998, p. 6-8).
In exploring the sculpture of the Eleven-Headed Bodhisattva located at the Art Institute of Chicago we will consider both the influences and the meaning of the artwork.
The sculpture of Avalokiteshvara stands 34.6 cm tall and has slender proportions. It is made of gilded bronze, however, in its current condition, little of the gold remains. Paint still lingers on the surface in select areas of the artwork and many of the precious jewels that would have described the jewelry and crowns are now missing. The sculpture depicts the figure as having eleven heads, which are divided between five registers. Each register, which is divided by a ring of bejeweled crowns, decreases in size and creates an almost a temple like shape. The two uppermost heads are surrounded in what looks like a red flame. The Bodhisattva also has four sets of arms, which fan out in a halo like shape around his body. Although not by any means plain, the body is somewhat simplified. There is little attention paid to anatomical detail, there is little attempt to describe musculature and the proportions are unrealistic. The legs are simple tubes and there is no description of weight shift. The body is slender and smooth, and while the arms and lines are flowing and add a sense of movement there is at the same time a certain rigid character. The drapery clings to the body, giving definition to the form that lies underneath, around the shoulders, the garment falls into flat folds, giving it a sense of weight and complexity that is otherwise absent. The figure is adorned with simple yet elegant jewelry which lays fairly flat against his body. The folds of the garment and the jewelry add an interesting texture to the otherwise smooth surface of the sculpture.
Formal and Contextual Analysis
In order to understand the meaning of this artwork we must be able to put it in its original context. In doing so, the sources, symbols, and functions of the piece will be considered in order to find meaning. Before looking at specific influences of Tibetan art, it is important to understand how Buddhist art, specifically sculpture, functioned within the region. The sculpture of Avalokiteshvara in its original context is meant to function as "a visual system of presenting symbols of enlightenment and also the way of inducing the experience of enlightenment" (Kramrisch, 1960, p. 23). Meaning that this sculpture was to aid in teaching the viewer and transporting the viewer to a higher realm of consciousness. Such ideas were supported by the practices of
(also known as Esoteric or Tantric Buddhism) one of the strongests systems of Buddhism in Tibet. Practitioners of Vajrayana would use such esoteric imagery as an aid to visualization during the early stages of mediation (Kossak and Singer, 1998, p. 9).
The depiction of Avalokiteshvara as a deity with 11 heads and multiple limbs comes from a number of different sources and carries with it important symbolism. From the Esoteric tradition, gods and goddesses are often shown with multiple limbs and heads. Often, as is the case with the sculpture in question, one of the heads will be of a wrathful deity, representing the inner states (such as greed or anger) which distract from enlightenment (Kossask and Singer, 1998, p. 8-9). However, such symbolism might be read a multitude of different ways. The wrathful figure may also represent the strength of the Bodhisattva to protect from evil powers (Kossak and Singer, 1998, p. 78). The other head, not belonging to Avalokiteshvara is of the Amitabha Buddha. The multiple limbs and heads are also symbolic of Avalokiteshvara's role as an compassionate protector. They represent his ability to see and reach out in every direction to those in need (Kossask and Singer, 1998, p. 8-9). The limbs and heads are meant to awe the viewer through reminding him/her of the Bodhisattva's boundless mercy and compassion.
There is also a number of literary sources which are in part the origin of the representation of Avalokiteshvara as having eleven heads. One version of the story tells that Avalokiteshvara promised Amitabha that he would never stop practicing compassion until every soul reached enlightenment. Eventually, he became so distraught over the continued suffering of all beings that his head split into a thousand pieces. Amitabha gathered these pieces into ten heads, placing them on top of each other, and placing his own head on top. He told the Bodhisattva to not give up on his promise, it was then that Mahakala, the wrathful aspect of the 11 heads was created. Mahakala fought against the negative forces which prevented beings from reaching enlightenment, destroying these obstacles helped all being to finally reach enlightenment (Lipton and Ragnubs, 1996, p. 149). The image of the 11 headed Avalokiteshvara is important in that it reminds the viewer of his boundless compassion.
The Tibetan sculpture of Avalokiteshvara shows an influence, both in style and iconography, of India, Nepal, and China. Interestingly, Indian art forms were often introduced to Tibet through Nepal (Kramrisch, 1960 p. 31). As the Buddhism religion spread from India throughout Asia it brought with it lasting prototypes for Buddhist art. The influence of earlier Indian art, specifically art from the Gupta period, can be seen in the way the garment clings to the body to reveal a simplified form (see figure 2).
Fig. 2, Buddha Torso, Gupta Style,
Photo © 2011, Musée Guiment
The sculpture of Avalokiteshvara also shows the influence of Nepalese sculpture (see figure 3) in the ornate jewelry, gilding, and use of precious gems (Rhie and Thurman, 1991, p. 63). In considering the examples of the sculptures from India and Nepal, it seems clear that the Tibetan statue of Avalokiteshvara has been heavily influenced by such styles. The sculpture maintains the simple, yet rigid form of the Gupta style while introducing the decorative elements of the artwork from Nepal.
Fig. 3, Gilded Bronze Statue of Vajrasattva, Nepal,
Photo © 2011, The British Museum
Fig. 4, Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara with One Thousand Hands and One Thousand Eyes,
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo © 2011, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Tibetan Buddhist art also looked to China as a source of influence, this is especially true in the treatment of garments. In comparing the sculpture in question to the example shown in figure 4, the treatment of fabric is very much similar. In both figures, flat folds gather at the shoulders and have a fluttery quality at the hemline.
In doing research for this project I saw Avalokiteshvara portrayed in a number of different forms but I think that it is the 11 headed version that is the most powerful. While the image of a multi-headed, multi-limbed deity is visually striking, it is the message from which this sculpture derives so much of its power. This artwork is a testament to the limitless compassion of the Bodhisattva, of his willingness and ability to see and reach out to those in need. I think that its function in relation to enlightenment is also incredibly interesting. Beyond the symbolic importance of the artwork, it also has a very tangible function as a tool to be used in meditation and thus it aids the viewer towards the path of enlightenment. I also think that while this piece was not rendered with the most impressive craftsmanship, there are much finer examples in terms of artistic ability. However, I do think that there is something beautiful in the balance found between the simplistic form and the decorative details. I think that it allows the viewer to not be distracted from the more important message of the artwork. Overall, I think that the sculpture of Avalokiteshvara is a successful piece of religious art.
"Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara with One Thousand Hands and One Thousand Eyes." Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accessed March 29, 2011. <
"Buddha Torso." Musée Guimet. Accessed March 28, 2011. <
Photograph and description of artwork and style, useful overview.
Eleven-Headed Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara
." The Art Institute of Chicago. Accessed March 28, 2011. <
Photograph, little information except date and other identification.
"Gilded Bronze Statue of Vajrasattva." British Museum. Accessed March 29, 2011. <
Photograph, the museum website also had a good overview of style, etc.
Kossak, Steven M. and Jane Casey Singer.
Sacred Visions: Early Paintings from Central Tibet
. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1998.
This book had a lot of useful information on the influences and functions of Tibetan art, beautiful photographs.
Kramrisch, Stella. "The Art of Nepal and Tibet."
Philadelphia Museum of Art Bulletin
55, no. 265 (1960): 23-38. Accessed March 30, 2011.
Although this is an older source it had a lot of good information on the relationship between Buddhist artwork in Tibet and Nepal, also mentions other artistic sources in Tibetan art.
Lipton, Barbara and Nima Dorjee Ragnubs.
Treasures of Tibetan Art
. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
This book has really excellent photographs of the artwork as well as in depth analysis of each artwork.
Rhie, Marylin M. and Robert A. F. Thurman.
Wisdom and Compassion: The Sacred Art of Tibet
. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1991.
I liked this book because it walks you through the different periods of Tibetan art.
"Vajrayana." Wikipedia. Accessed March 29, 2011. <
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