Smithsonian’s Freer|Sackler Reveals There Is More Than Meets the Eye When It Comes to Buddhist Sculpture

A Look at a Korean Buddhist Sculpture and the Devotional Materials It Once Held Inside
September 9, 2019
News Release

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Buddha statue

Detail, Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (Gwaneum bosal). Korea, Goryeo period, ca. 1220–1285. Gilt wood and gilt copper and iron with crystal inlays. National Museum of Korea, Seoul

A single object—a centuries-old gilt wood sculpture of Gwaneum, the bodhisattva (a person on the path of becoming a Buddha) of compassion—is the focus of the Freer|Sackler’s newest exhibition, “Sacred Dedication: A Korean Buddhist Masterpiece.” The exhibition will be on view Sept. 21 through March 22, 2020.

While the sculpture, on loan from the National Museum of Korea, is the centerpiece, “Sacred Dedication” also examines the sacred texts and potent symbolic objects, such as seeds and jewels that were sealed inside this hollow religious sculpture of Gwaneum—the most popular deity in Korean Buddhism—when it was first put into a place of worship in the 13th century. The exhibition explores the practice of adding dedication material to a Buddhist sculpture during consecration ceremonies, which was believed to transform it into a living body.

Recent research conducted by the National Museum of Korea provides new information about this rare crowned sculpture of Gwaneum, its hidden contents and the special rituals that surrounded image consecration in Korea centuries ago. Using X-rays, 3-D scanning and material analysis and research, this sculpture is now known to be the oldest surviving gilded wood figure in an informal pose in Korea. Its posture, with one leg raised and the other lowered, is associated with the deity’s dwelling place, where he sits calmly on rocks above the crashing waves of the sea.

“Few religious sculptures in museums have survived essentially intact, but this beautiful wooden image still has its original metal crown,” said Keith Wilson, curator of the exhibition and Ancient Chinese Art at the Freer|Sackler. “The dedication materials found inside are also really interesting, especially because they show that the object was consecrated twice. For our visitors, this exhibition offers a chance to see things rarely on view in a museum.”

The sculpture is being shown with an important painting of the same deity. This second work, in the collection of the Freer Gallery of Art, was painted within a century of the sculpture and offers a rare opportunity to compare the subject in different media.

As an extension of the exhibition “Sacred Dedication: A Korean Buddhist Masterpiece,” the Freer|Sackler will host a symposium by the same name Feb. 20 and 21, 2020. Ten scholars from Korea and the U.S. will participate in the symposium, which will focus on a Goryeo-dynasty sculpture and the practice of image consecration in Korean Buddhism. The symposium will offer new insights into image-making and consecration practices in Korea within the broader East Asian context.

In addition to the symposium, the Goryeo dynasty is the focus of the Freer|Sackler’s newest online catalog, Goryeo Buddhist Paintings: A Closer Look. There are an estimated 160 Goryeo paintings in the world, and three of them are part of the collections at the Freer|Sackler. A total of 16 Goryeo paintings are held by eight U.S. institutions, and the Freer|Sackler spearheaded an effort to study and digitize these rare artworks to make them accessible to the public. The catalog will be publicly available through the Freer|Sackler website beginning Sept. 21 and is made possible by the Cultural Heritage Administration of the Republic of Korea.   

“Sacred Dedication: A Korean Buddhist Masterpiece” is organized by the Smithsonian’s Freer|Sackler and the National Museum of Korea. Exhibition support is provided by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism of the Republic of Korea and the Ellen Bayard Weedon Foundation.

About the Freer|Sackler

America meets Asia at the Freer|Sackler, the Smithsonian’s national museum of Asian art. Located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., the museum is committed to preserving, exhibiting and interpreting exemplary works of art and addresses broad questions about culture, identity and the contemporary world. Nearly a century old, the museum cares for one of the world’s most important collections of Asian art, with more than 40,000 objects dating from the Neolithic period to today. Masterpieces from China, Japan, Korea, South and Southeast Asia, the ancient Near East and the Islamic world are complemented by a significant group of American works, including the famed Peacock Room. Drawing from the rich collections and scholarship, the Freer|Sackler’s renowned exhibitions inspires visitors to celebrate differences, transform perceptions and spark connections.

The Freer|Sackler invites its visitors to travel from America to Asia through exquisite artworks, foundational research and dynamic programs. Through both quiet contemplation and joyous celebration, they can experience the Freer|Sackler’s unique ability to generate empathy across cultures.

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Sonia Coman-Ernstoff

(202) 633-0408

Sai Muddasani
(2020 633-0408