An old man is represented as a gaunt ascetic
seated in meditation with his chin resting on top of his hands placed one
over the other above his raised right knee.
His left leg is bent horizontally underneath, drawn toward the
body. A long cloth is draped across
his back and falls over the left shoulder, and he wears pants fastened with
a cord around his waist. His lowered
head, furrowed forehead, and partially closed eyes enhance the feeling that
he is lost in thought. Features such
as the elongated ear lobes, high nose, mustache, beard, and bald pate with
hair on the sides and back of his head, all suggest a foreign ethnicity and
stylistically may derive from a tradition of ascetic sculptures in India.
ascetic figures in this posture have been identified either as the Sakyamuni Buddha shown with a protruding crown (usnisa) on the top of the head and a circle of
hair (urna) between his brows; or as
a lohan (luohan) guardian of the
Buddhist Law without the urna and usnisa. Lohans portrayed as beings with profound enlightenment
akin to that of bodhisattvas is typical of Mahayana Buddhism in East Asia.
They served as intermediaries for universal salvation between
humanity and Buddhist paradise. At
the same time, the sensibility of the original ideal of the lohan as a model of individual salvation as it is found
in Theravada Buddhism persists in some images. The extreme asceticism of this lacquer
figure, indicated by his emaciated form, recalls the duration of the
historical Buddha’s meditation beneath the Bodhi
tree. The Buddha’s meditative period
served as a model for others who sought enlightenment through intense
ascetic practice. This iconography
seems to have emerged in China
during the Yuan dynasty, but it is uncertain how such sculptures were
presented and worshipped. One
possibility is that they were donated as objects for meditation in remote
Buddhist mountain shrines.
Published References & Reproductions
Journal 32 (1973), p. 314 illus. (noted as recent acquisition).
La Chronique des Arts, Gazette des Beaux-arts,
supplement no. 1249 (Feb. 1973), p. 114, fig. 403.
of The Art Museum, Princeton University 32, no. 1 (1973), pp. 27, 30 (noted
as recent acquisition).
from The Art Museum, Princeton University (Princeton:
The Art Museum, Princeton University, 1986), p. 209 illus.
Mary Shepard Slusser, "The Art of East Asian Lacquer
27.1 (1996), p. 28, fig. 22.