Conservation of the Bodhisattva Guanyin

This late Ming dynasty dry-lacquer sculpture is an image of the bodhisattva Guanyin, an enlightened being venerated in Chinese Buddhism as an embodiment of compassion. Called a "Water-moon Guanyin" or "Guanyin sitting in Royal Ease," this theme and its iconography derive from textual inspiration found in the Avatamsaka Sutra (the central text of the Hua-yen school of Buddhism), and indigenous Chinese traditions. The dry lacquer technique was popular, but examples of this size and degree of refinement are rare. Chinese, late 14th-15th century, H: 50 x W: 34 1/4 x D: 22 5/8 in. Walters Art Museum, 25.256.

This late Ming dynasty dry-lacquer sculpture is an image of the bodhisattva Guanyin, an enlightened being venerated in Chinese Buddhism as an embodiment of compassion. Called a “Water-moon Guanyin” or “Guanyin sitting in Royal Ease,” this theme and its iconography derive from textual inspiration found in the Avatamsaka Sutra (the central text of the Hua-yen school of Buddhism), and indigenous Chinese traditions. The dry lacquer technique was popular, but examples of this size and degree of refinement are rare. Chinese, late 14th-15th century, H: 50 x W: 34 1/4 x D: 22 5/8 in. Walters Art Museum, 25.256.

Conservation of the Bodhisattva GuanyinThe Bodhisattva Guanyin, a beautiful near-life-size figure, was a recent gift from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. Made in China during the Ming period (early 15th–early 17th centuries), the sculpture made its journey from the Duke estate to the Walters 19th-century galleries, where it received treatment by the conservation department prior to going on view in the Hackerman House.

Walters conservators have made some interesting discoveries about the piece. First of all, it is made using a hollow dry-lacquer technique, a layering technique similar to papier maché, but using Asian lacquer derived from tree sap. Cloth soaked in lacquer was used to model the initial form of the sculpture. Then layers of lacquer bulked with successively finer material were added to smooth the surface for eventual gilding. Beneath the gilding, red lacquer tinted with cinnabar, an ancient Chinese pigment, derived from mercuric sulphide, shines through. Now black overall, the hair was originally painted blue, and special attention was also given to his face, which was gilded as many as five times.

guanyin2WEBCare was taken to stabilize areas of lacquer that are now detached from the cloth and the surface was cleaned of years of accumulated grime that dulls the once lustrous surface.