Hebei Province, China
Earthenware with three-color (sancai) glaze
H. 41 1/4 in. (104.8 cm)
Frederick C. Hewitt Fund, 1921 (21.76)
Buddhist tradition tells of groups of 16, 18, or 500 luohans who were commanded by Buddha to await the coming of Maitreya, the Future Buddha. This promise of salvation held great appeal to Chinese Buddhists at the end of the ninth century, for they had just been through a period a great persecution, and a cult built around the luohans as guardians gained momentum at that time.
The Museum has two statues from a group of seated luohans purportedly found in a mountain cave near Yizhou, (now known as Yixian) in Hebei Province, and dating from this unsettled period. The polychromatic glaze covering the figures has strong parallels to the well-known sancai, or three-color, tradition found in earlier Tang-dynasty funerary figures. The high quality of the designs and the use of sophisticated techniques such as reinforcing rods have long led scholars to speculate that this example, and others from the set, may have been made at one of the imperial kilns, where large firing chambers and highly skilled craftsmen were available.
The discovery of a kiln in Longquanwu at Mentougou village (a western suburb of Beijing) in 1983 and the subsequent excavation in 1985 have provided much useful information regarding the "Yixian Luohans" as the group is often known. In addition to a considerable quantity of sancai ware, the site also yielded three half-lifesize Buddhist sculptures: a white ceramic Buddha with a painted robe, and two bodhisattvas covered in a sancai-type glaze. Parallels to sculptures produced during the Liao dynasty suggest that the works excavated at Longquanwu date to the second half of the tenth century, while the famous Luohans were made slightly later, probably during the early years of the reign of Shengzong (982–1031).