Chinese, South and Southeast Asian Art at Minneapolis Institute of Art

I recently visited and pursued the Chinese, South and Southeast Asian Art collection at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Like most modern day museums, it’s browsable online for higher quality photos and descriptions.

‘Standing Bodhisattva’

Singling out a collection piece for deeper investigation, the ‘Standing Bodhisattva’ by an unknown artist is particularly interesting. The Mia describes this 6th Century work thus:

This standing figure is a bodhisattva, a being who has postponed its own passage to nirvana in order to guide others to salvation. Bodhisattvas are often depicted as paired attendants to a buddha. This sculpture, too, was probably once worshipped as part of a triad of sculptures, positioned to either the left or right of a central icon. This bodhisattva stands on a stone base (the square plinth, two lions, and the lower half of a lotus-shaped pedestal) that was created for a separate sculpture of the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni. Several lengthy inscriptions on the base explain that an original sculpture was created in 570, and then another was installed at the same temple in 581, both utilizing this base. In 574, an emperor of the Northern Zhou dynasty (557–81) prohibited Buddhism in China, and many idols were desecrated. This may be the reason the base has some apparently intentional damage (two of four lions have been removed) and is no longer with its original sculpture. At some later date, the base came to be used for the present bodhisattva. In the early 1900s, it became the first work of Asian art to enter Mia’s collection.

‘Standing Bodhisattva’ by an unknown artist

The fact that this Bodhisattva is of an unnamed title is the first striking thing about it. Then plenty of questions and speculation come to mind. Some of these questions and musings could be helpful while others not so much. Consider what you’d like and dismiss the rest please.

‘Standing Bodhisattva’

Why would the description state ‘this sculpture, too, was probably once worshipped’ when such activity is discouraged in Buddhism?


Who removed the hand, when did they remove it, and why? Mudras, or hand gestures, are often symbolic, or represent certain intent. What mudra did the hand display before removal, and what significance, if any, would the hand position play in the larger narrative? Could someone have created a hole where the right hand was after the initial hand removal? Could this hole allow for easier interchanging of different right hands with various mudras (for certain purposes)? Could a similar (unseen) manner or method be true for the left hand now?

Why would two lions be ripped off instead of zero, one, three or four lions? What about something different than lions? How can we know for sure?

What historical background details support, or don’t support, “an emperor of the Northern Zhou” being “the reason the base has some apparently intentional damage”? If the originally attached “idol” still exists, [which, by the way, there are no “idols” per se in Buddhism] where is it (now)? (Why go through the trouble of removing the original from the base? Or was the original statue not removed, just smashed, but the base mostly left undamaged? Leading further to: then where was the base positioned in the temple and how was it affixed? If the original statue was destroyed, why smash two lions but leave two lions?)

Why go through the trouble of reattaching a new statue to this base? Why not a new base? And why affix a Bodhisattva to the base instead of another Buddha?

Could something have been hidden in the base when attached to the original statue prompting removal or destruction? Is something hidden in this one now? And if the artist is unknown, do we know anything about the artists of the previous statue? Could this base have been used for more than two statues?

Could other explanations be possible? Could the monastery, or another party, have removed the original Buddha statue (and put it in hiding for safe keeping, or for other reasons) with the author(s) of the base’s description depicting false information — relating such details either knowingly, or just inscribing what was told to them, not knowing for certain whether the related accounts were or factual or not? Or, could the description have been added by someone who had the base when/if it was outside the temple (to help oust the Northern Zhou dynasty, or for whatever agenda(s)) then later found its way back to the temple? So many possibilities. The big question is what does the full text on the base say and who wrote it?

Some detail images of the base:

Published by josh dippold

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