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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.

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Created by The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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  • mr pants teal style avatar for user Anthony Natoli
    At , the narrator says that the elongated earlobes suggest an "advanced spiritual state". In other videos on Khan Academy about the Buddha/Siddhartha, it was stated that the elongated earlobes represent the Buddha's royal original, NOT due to being in an advanced spiritual state, when as Siddhartha, the Buddha wore heavy earrings as a royal personage. Could the elongated earlobes of the present statue (who is not Buddha) represent Buddha-like nature (advanced spiritual state) in mirroring the Buddha's elongated earlobes which were, however, NOT due to being in an advanced spiritual state when he was Siddhartha? Or could the present statue represent a royal person (not Siddhartha) who became a monk yet had his own earlobes elongated for the same reason that the Buddha/Siddhartha did?
    (6 votes)
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    • female robot grace style avatar for user squishypengu
      Short answer? It is probably a tool used by the artist to help connect the subject with the Buddha - so yes, it was most likely used to represent the spiritual state of the monk, the artist needed some way to show it physically. And to let you know Buddhism is extremely confusing and complex as there are so many variations, what is true for one sect of Buddhism isn't necessarily true for another. Take Budai, some Buddhists take him for Maitreya and some reject him completely. Buddhism isn't really a religion you can put in so nice a box. Especially in East Asia.
      (5 votes)
  • mr pants teal style avatar for user Anthony Natoli
    At , the narrator says that the holes in the base suggest a platform on a mountain. Alternatively, could the holes be for receiving poles or hands of a group of men to carry the statue, either to move it or to have it in a religious procession? The companion piece also has the same holes in the base, as seen at . The idea of receiving poles for carrying is also suggested since the holes may go through the entire base, since at , the hole closest to the wall on the near side of the companion piece and the hole on the side facing the wall are hollow, since one can see the gray-white wall through the two holes near the left corner of the base. Is there any evidence or information whether the holes were used for carrying the statues with poles or hands?
    (5 votes)
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    • spunky sam blue style avatar for user L
      The holes could be for a practical purpose, as your observations suggest, AND symbolic one(s). There are a lot of grey areas in the arts and their interpretations.
      (3 votes)
  • female robot ada style avatar for user Ellie Miskimen
    What is the companion piece?
    (3 votes)
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    • spunky sam blue style avatar for user L
      You can click on the underlined "companion piece" in the explanation under the video and it will take you to the piece at the Mteropolitan Museum of Art's website. It is another Arhat (Luohan) statue, seated and similarly dressed.
      (2 votes)
  • female robot ada style avatar for user dacate03
    Is this the type of sculpture that monks used to be momified in?
    Isn't that why they have holes on their ears?
    (1 vote)
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  • duskpin sapling style avatar for user Alina Chen
    Pictures show that the back of the monk's head is painted green. Is this another spiritual symbol? If not, what is it?
    (1 vote)
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  • spunky sam blue style avatar for user Gangster
    Why is location also isolated ?
    (1 vote)
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  • spunky sam blue style avatar for user Gangster
    Why does the square ledge has holes all around?
    (1 vote)
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  • spunky sam blue style avatar for user Gangster
    What does the statue holding sculptor depict ?
    (1 vote)
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  • orange juice squid orange style avatar for user Jon Winder
    How did this sculpture get the name "Divinity"?
    (0 votes)
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  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Barrett Southworth
    This is an example of a real person advancing in spiritual advancement. What other examples of this are there?
    (1 vote)
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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.