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A Pensive Treasure

Denise Patry Leidy, Curator, Department of Asian Art; and Soyoung Lee, Associate Curator, Department of Asian Art

Posted: Monday, December 2, 2013

Bodhisattva in pensive pose, National Museum of Korea, National Treasure 83

Bodhisattva in pensive pose, probably Maitreya (Korean: Mireuk), Korea, Silla kingdom, late 6th–early 7th century. Gilt bronze; H. 36 7/8 in. (93.5 cm). National Museum of Korea, National Treasure 83

«Last shown in the U.S. in 1981—and now on view in Silla: Korea's Golden Kingdom—this breathtaking gilt-bronze sculpture of a bodhisattva may never be seen in New York again.»

Also known as National Treasure 83, the bodhisattva is seated with his right leg crossed over his left, and the fingers of his right hand gently touching his cheek. This combination of posture and gesture, a pan-Asian iconography known as the "pensive pose," became popular in Korea in the sixth and seventh centuries, influenced particularly by prototypes in Chinese Buddhist art of the mid-sixth century.

Unlike Buddhas, the ultimate enlightened beings who have transcended mortal concerns, bodhisattvas have chosen to remain accessible to help and guide others in the phenomenal world. Particularly in Korea and Japan, bodhisattvas in the "pensive pose" are usually identified as Maitreya (彌勒), a bodhisattva in the cosmic era who will become the teaching Buddha of the next great period of time. Maitreya was one of the more popular bodhisattvas in East Asia from the fifth to the seventh century.

Bodhisattva in Pensive Pose, Kōryū-ji Temple, Kyoto, Japan

An almost identical sculpture is preserved in the Kōryūji Temple in Kyoto, Japan. Debate continues regarding the origin of this statue: Was it made in one of the Korean kingdoms, possibly Silla, and gifted to its eastern neighbor? Or made by Korean immigrant artisans living in Japan? It is worth noting that the Kōryūji piece is carved from red pine, a wood commonly found on the Korean peninsula. Moreover, during this period, Korean monks and artists are known to have lived and worked in Japan.

Maitreya's compassion and understanding are elegantly embodied in the beautifully cast National Treasure 83. His quietude and peace is shown in his sublime facial features like the downcast eyes and in the simple contours of his upper body. His continuing engagement with the world is embodied in the subtle movement of his fingers, the charmingly upturned toes of the right foot, and the lively folds of his drapery.

We invite you to greet the pensive bodhisattva, to share in his serenity and grace, and to enjoy Silla: Korea's Golden Kingdom.

Right: Bodhisattva in Pensive Pose, probably Maitreya, Korea or Japan, 7th century. Wood (red pine); H. 48 1/2 in. (163.2 cm). Kōryū-ji Temple, Kyoto, Japan

Related Link
Exhibition: Silla: Korea's Golden Kingdom

Department(s): Asian Art
Tag(s): bodhisattva, Korea, Silla


  • guy smith says:

    Amazing art ..
    I was very happy to arrive and greet the Bodhisattva thoughtful, to peace and his grace, and enjoy ..

    Posted: December 3, 2013, 1:05 p.m.

  • Michael Collins says:

    beautiful sculpture but why may we never see it in New York again?

    Posted: December 5, 2013, 4:27 a.m.

  • Denise Leidy says:

    Dear all,

    Thank you for visiting the pensive bodhisattva. As you know this wonderful sculpture is classfied as a National Treasure, and is one of the most revered works of early Korean art. It is often called the Korean "Mona Lisa," and the South Korean government rarely permits it to travel.

    Please come back and see the exhibition and the bodhisattva again.



    Posted: December 5, 2013, 10:24 a.m.

  • Peter Kubicek says:

    To: Denise and Soyoung

    I have been recommending this exhibit to everyone on my tours, as well as to all my friends, and have received many favorable comments on his astounding collection.



    Posted: December 6, 2013, 2:21 p.m.

  • Elisabeth says:

    "Breathtaking sculpture"... it happened to me! Isn't amazing how art can unite all of us?
    Here in Brazil, wispering...
    Thanks for show this stoning piece of art.

    Posted: December 23, 2013, 6:06 p.m.

  • Bill Yoon says:

    Thank you for a wonderful article.
    I have done a lot of research on the Geumdong Mireuk Bosal Bangasayusang Buddha Statue, or Korean Gilt-Bronze Maitreya Bodhisattva Half-Sitting Thinking Buddha Statue.
    We have one of two exact replicas of the Korean Maitreya Bodhisattva that are currently in the United States at Koreana Gifts and Arts in Los Angeles.
    You can see many images of the exact replica on our website.
    I didn't post a link because I wasn't sure if that was allowed, but you can find us on the internet.
    The replica was commissioned by the South Korean government for the Korean Art 5000 Exhibition in 1970s.
    It is exactly the same size, height and weight as the original.
    Crafted by the finest bronze artists in South Korea.
    The authenticity of the replica was verified by phone by So-Young who looked at the images on our website, and gave me the dimensions of the original.

    Bill Yoon
    Koreana Gifts & Arts

    Posted: May 9, 2014, 6:23 p.m.

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About the Authors

Denise Patry Leidy is a curator in the Department of Asian Art.

Associate Curator Soyoung Lee joined the staff of the Department of Asian Art in 2003, and is responsible for the Korean art collection, programs, and gallery. She has organized major international loan exhibitions with accompanying catalogues, including Silla: Korea's Golden Kingdom (2013) with Denise Patry Leidy and Art of the Korean Renaissance, 1400–1600 (2009), as well as shows focusing on the permanent collection such as Korea: 100 Years of Collecting at the Met (2015). She holds a PhD from Columbia University, with a dissertation on the relationship between Korean and Japanese ceramics from the fifteenth through the nineteenth century.

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