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Arhat (Luohan)

Met curator Denise Leidy on ugliness and divinity in Arhat (Luohan) dating from China’s Liao dynasty,  c. 1000. 

This nearly life-size sculpture and its companion piece are part of a group of about sixteen works that have been known in the West since 1913. They are thought to have come from a cave in Yixian, in Hebei province, and they represent arhats (or luohans, as they are known in China). Arhats were thought to have achieved an advanced (although not perfected) state of spiritual development, and they eventually became recognized as protectors of Buddhism. Both works are justifiably acclaimed as masterpieces of ceramic sculpture, both for their size and for the quality of their glaze, a three-toned or colored glaze known as sancai. The discovery of an ancient kiln in a village near Beijing in 1983 and its subsequent excavation in 1985 yielded much information that could be used to date these extraordinary sculptures. It seems reasonable, therefore, to date the more technically challenging, life-size works slightly later, probably to the late tenth or eleventh century.

View this work on metmuseum.org.

Created by The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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Video transcript

This poor, elderly monk is anything but perfect. He’s thin; he’s skeletal; he’s old. He seems to be tired as he sits in meditation. His face, which is quite arresting--and does have an air of introspection--is far from beautiful. The reason this attracts me so much is the fact that it seems to have a very different answer for the worldwide question of how do you show a religious figure? The answer has traditionally been that spiritual advancement is reflected in physical beauty. You are kind of drawn to him because he is human. It looks like someone you might know, someone you might talk to. I mean, if you look at his chest, it’s kind of bony. His hands are veined. He’s very much here with us. There are a couple of clues that this is a Buddhist monk. He’s seated in a posture that many of us associate with meditation. His hair seems to be partially shaved off, which is something you find with monks and nuns. He has very, very long earlobes, which is a traditional Indian symbol for an advanced spiritual state. He holds a rolled scroll in one hand. This is probably a religious text. He’s seated on this square ledge that has these holes all around and that, I think, is supposed to tell you that he’s on a mountaintop, or in some lonely, isolated location. When you think that it was made in 1,000 A.D., it’s actually a colossal clay sculpture. It’s almost life-size. I think that he represents someone who’s lived a life, and so there is an immediate response to his humanity. It’s transgressive or challenging because most of us, I suspect, walk around with a notion of divinity as somehow idealized. And this doesn’t grab you because he’s attractive or pretty; it grabs you because he’s strong, and he seems to say something about spiritual development, but maybe you have to think a little bit about why.