Marble Torso of Guanyin

Sui Dynasty (581 – 618)
White marble

Height: 16 ½ inches (42 cm)

The slender-waisted figure wears a pleated shawl over both shoulders. The chest is bare, adorned by a broad necklace, over which hangs a long chain suspending two roundels and garrya husk swags, all flanked by a further long chain falling to just above the knees. This elaborate network of beads embellishes a pleated dhoti secured at the waist by a broad sash, knotted and tasselled. The raised right hand holds the remains of a willow branch while the left hand clutches a flask.

These attributes identify the figure as the most popular of bodhisattvas, Guanyin. Although having many different manifestations, from the sixth to ninth century the deity was worshipped primarily as the ‘compassionate saviour’, capable of healing all ills. The flask holds sacred water to quench the literal and spiritual thirst of devotees, and when applied to the willow branch endows it with curative properties.

Guanyin is an abbreviated form of Guanshiyin, which may loosely be translated as ‘seeing the voice of the world’, and is the Chinese rendering of the name of the Indian deity Avalokiteshvara, whose name also refers to the deity’s power to hear and witness the cries of all who suffer.