Pensive Bodhisattva on a rectangular pedestal

Essay by Kwon Kangmi

Pensive Bodhisattva, Three Kingdoms Period, Korea, gilt-bronze, 28.2 cm high (The National Museum of Korea, Treasure 331)

Pensive Bodhisattva, Three Kingdoms Period, Korea, gilt-bronze, 28.2 cm high (The National Museum of Korea, Treasure 331)

Many visitors come to the National Museum of Korea to see the two famous gilt-bronze pensive bodhisattva statues, designated as National Treasure 78 and National Treasure 83, which are acclaimed as representative works of the Three Kingdoms Period (57 B.C.E.–668 C.E.). Produced with the most advanced casting techniques of the time, those two statues have been widely praised as masterpieces of ancient Buddhist sculpture, and have thus become veritable icons of the National Museum of Korea. In addition to their formal beauty, those two statues are exceptional because of their great size, each measuring about one meter in height. Most gilt-bronze pensive bodhisattva statues, which were popularly produced during the sixth and seventh centuries, tend to be much smaller (about 20–30 cm tall).

Among the smaller gilt-bronze pensive bodhisattva statues that have survived, there is one particularly unique work with an abstract expression of an unrealistically slim body: the gilt-bronze Pensive Bodhisattva (Treasure 331). The slim, elongated proportions of the figure evince a transcendental beauty, thus heightening the religious sanctity of the bodhisattva.

Pensive Bodhisattva (from either side), Three Kingdoms Period, Korea, gilt-bronze, 28.2 cm high (The National Museum of Korea, Treasure 331)

Pensive Bodhisattva (from either side), Three Kingdoms Period, Korea, gilt-bronze, 28.2 cm high (The National Museum of Korea, Treasure 331)

Pensive Bodhisattva on a rectangular pedestal

This remarkable statue was purchased in 1910 by the Museum of the Japanese Government-General of Korea from Bando Kanpei (板東勘平), a Japanese collector. Unfortunately, the provenance and production site of the statue are unknown. Due to the unconventional rectangular pedestal under the lotus pedestal, it is popularly called the gilt-bronze Pensive Bodhisattva on a square pedestal.

Rectangular pedestal, Pensive Bodhisattva (detail), Three Kingdoms Period, Korea, gilt-bronze, 28.2 cm high (The National Museum of Korea, Treasure 331)

Rectangular pedestal, Pensive Bodhisattva (detail), Three Kingdoms Period, Korea, gilt-bronze, 28.2 cm high (The National Museum of Korea, Treasure 331)

Pensive bodhisattva, 606 or 666, Asuka period, cast bronze and gold plated, 38.8 cm high, from Horyuji, n-156 (Tokyo National Museum)

Pensive bodhisattva, 606 or 666, Asuka period, cast bronze and gold plated, 38.8 cm high, from Horyuji Temple, n-156, Japan (Tokyo National Museum)

Most pensive bodhisattvas are depicted sitting on a round chair, but this statue also includes a lotus pedestal on a rectangular platform, underneath the chair. To be precise, the rectangular platform is more of a support, rather than a pedestal. But since the rectangular platform is such a rare feature among pensive bodhisattva statues from the Three Kingdoms Period, the name has stuck.

Although no other pensive bodhisattva statues from the Three Kingdoms Period have a rectangular platform, some Japanese pensive bodhisattva statues that were produced under the Korean influence include a similar style of platform. In fact, most Japanese gilt-bronze pensive bodhisattva statues produced in the Asuka and Hakuho periods feature a lotus pedestal under a round chair, supported by a rectangular platform.

Pensive Bodhisattva, Three Kingdoms Period, Korea, gilt-bronze, 20.9 cm high (The National Museum of Korea, Deoksu 3200)

Pensive Bodhisattva, Three Kingdoms Period, Korea, gilt-bronze, 20.9 cm high (The National Museum of Korea, Deoksu 3200)

In addition, two pensive bodhisattva statues from the Three Kingdoms Period are believed to have once been attached to similar platforms, but the platforms have now gone missing. Those two statues are a gilt-bronze pensive bodhisattva with a unique mustache (National Museum of Korea, Deoksu 3200) and a gilt-bronze pensive bodhisattva now housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The bottoms of those two statues are either dented or have sharp extended points, indicating that they were once attached to some kind of separate support. Based on the Japanese examples, these and other Korean gilt-bronze pensive bodhisattva statues may have once been attached to a rectangular platform, although this cannot yet be confirmed.

Surreal beauty with abstract expression and extreme contrast

Pensive Bodhisattva (detail), Three Kingdoms Period, Korea, gilt-bronze, 28.2 cm high (The National Museum of Korea, Treasure 331)

Pensive Bodhisattva (detail), Three Kingdoms Period, Korea, gilt-bronze, 28.2 cm high (The National Museum of Korea, Treasure 331)

The body and arms of this pensive bodhisattva statue are unrealistically long and thin, such that it almost resembles an abstract sculpture. The creases of the robe flowing down the right knee are also rendered schematically, like a pile of thin sheets.

There are three small holes in the head, likely where a crown was once inserted. A long ornamental cloth covers both shoulders like a shawl, wrapping around the arms and descending down both sides of the pedestal, a type of depiction that is rarely seen in pensive bodhisattva statues.

The entire statue was cast as a single piece; the upper body is filled with bronze, while the lower area (the pedestal and below) is hollow. Traces of bubbles produced during the casting process can be seen in a few spots, especially on the large protuberance atop the head and on the back of the head. Upon close examination, the relatively tall lotus pedestal bears some marks that look like welding joints. Such marks seem to be the traces of a second casting, in order to patch flaws from the initial casting with beeswax.

Pensive Bodhisattva (from the back), Three Kingdoms Period, Korea, gilt-bronze, 28.2 cm high (The National Museum of Korea, Treasure 331)

Pensive Bodhisattva (back detail), Three Kingdoms Period, Korea, gilt-bronze, 28.2 cm high (The National Museum of Korea, Treasure 331)

On the front and back of the upper body, a pair of beaded necklaces intersects at a central lotus decoration. Hanging low, these necklaces have tassels that extend onto the left leg and the chair under the right leg. The left foot is supported by a footrest shaped like a lotus in full bloom, which was rendered in a highly three-dimensional and realistic way.

On the other hand, the abstract style of elongating the body and limbs seems to have influenced some Japanese pensive bodhisattva statues, such as the Pensive Bodhisattva with Inscription of the “Byeongin” Year (Donated Treasure 156 of Horyuji Temple).

With its sharp contrasts and unusual expression, this statue presages the bold formal innovations of Alberto Giacometti, the great twentieth-century sculptor. Moreover, the combination of such abstract expressions with realistic details provides a glimpse of the extraordinary creativity of the sculptor. Furthermore, the lean body with no excess weight corresponds to Prince Siddhartha in the state of deep meditation in India, the birthplace of Buddhism and pensive bodhisattva statues.

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Cite this page as: The National Museum of Korea, "Pensive Bodhisattva on a rectangular pedestal," in Smarthistory, February 1, 2023, accessed June 14, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/pensive-bodhisattva-rectangular-pedestal/.