Water-moon Avalokiteshvara

Artist: Unidentified Artist

Period: Goryeo dynasty (918–1392)

Date: first half of the 14th century

Culture: Korea

Medium: Hanging scroll; ink and color on silk

Dimensions: Image: 45 1/16 x 21 7/8 in. (114.5 x 55.6 cm)
Overall with knobs: 79 3/8 x 30 1/8 in. (201.6 x 76.5 cm)
Overall with mounting: 79 3/8 x 28 in. (201.6 x 71.1 cm)

Classification: Paintings

Credit Line: Charles Stewart Smith Collection, Gift of Mrs. Charles Stewart Smith, Charles Stewart Smith Jr., and Howard Caswell Smith, in memory of Charles Stewart Smith, 1914

Accession Number: 14.76.6


This superb painting depicts one of the most popular Buddhist deities in East Asia, Avalokiteshvara (Kwanūm), the bodhisattva of infinite compassion and wisdom. Here he is shown as the Water-Moon Avalokiteshvara (Suwōl Kwanūm), one of his numerous guises and one frequently depicted in Koryō Buddhist paintings. Chinese records suggest that this manifestation of the bodhisattva originated in China during the Tang dynasty (618–907), in the eighth century.

This representation of the Water-Moon Avalokiteshvara portrays the deity's standard attributes: the image of the Buddha Amitabha in his crown; the willow branch that symbolizes healing, displayed in a kundika (a ritual vessel used for sprinkling water) placed in a clear glass bowl to the figure's right; and a full moon at the top of the painting. Depicted in the moon is a hare standing under a cassia tree pounding the elixir of immortality, a theme based on a well-known Chinese legend.

Avalokiteshvara sits on a rocky outcrop surrounded by a sea of swirling waves, representing his island abode of Mount Potalaka (Naksan). In the water are small rocks with protruding stalks of precious coral; barely discernible in the background, to his left, are several large stalks of bamboo. The boy Sudhana, who, according to scripture, visits Mount Potalaka and the homes of fifty-three other Buddhist saints on a spiritual journey in search of ultimate truth, stands at Avalokiteshvara's feet in a pose of adoration. (Sudhana's travels are described in the Avatamsaka Sutra, the influential Buddhist scripture that provided the textual basis for Korean renderings of the Water-Moon Avalokiteshvara.) Opposite the youth, a sumptuously dressed group comprised of the dragon king of the Eastern Sea, his retinue (who might represent the aristocratic donors who commissioned the painting), and sea monsters present offerings of incense, coral, and pearls.

Avalokiteshvara is attired in beautiful robes and sashes, with intricate gold details on his jewelry and clothing. Holding a crystal rosary in his right hand, he sits with his right leg crossed and his left foot placed on a lotus-flower support. Surrounding his body and symbolizing his divinity is a large luminous mandorla (aureole), while a nimbus (halo) encircles his head.

The luxuriousness of the painting materials and the bodhisattva's attire and accessories, as well as the numerous delicately rendered details, well expresses the ideal of chang'om (alamkara). This idea of conveying a sense of sacred splendor through rich ornamentation and visual glorification was prevalent among the upper classes in the Koryō period and part of the belief that one's goals could be achieved through the proper performance of rituals, which necessitated iconographically correct images and suitably furnished settings.