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100 Highlights
of the MFAH
Take a tour through some of the most significant objects in the MFAH collections. On these pages, you can browse 100 highlights from collections throughout the institution. Then visit the MFAH in person to discover your own favorites.
 
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CHINESE
Avalokitesvara
557–618
Carved limestone

25 1/2 x 8 x 5 1/2 inches

 
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Gift of T. T. & W. F. Chao Global Foundation in honor of
Mr. and Mrs. Ting Tsung Chao, with additional funds provided
by the Director's Accessions Fund

Arts of Asia
 
ABOUT

In Buddhism, Avalokitesvara is known as an enlightened holy being who embodies mercy, wisdom, and compassion. The synthesis of Indian, Central Asian, and Chinese styles in this figure signifies the extensive intercultural exchange present in China between the Zhou dynasty (557–581) and the Sui dynasty (581–618).  The unusually naturalistic rendering, jewel-encrusted necklace, elaborate pendant, flowing dhoti (a traditional Indian garment), heavily lidded eyes, and high nose refer to the deity’s Indian and Central Asian background.

This sculpture of Avalokitesvara is made of a type of yellow limestone primarily found in China's central Shaanxi Province. His head—the holiest part of the body in Buddhist belief—is adorned with lotus flowers and an elaborate, openwork crown. In its center sits the Amitabha Buddha, who presides over the Paradise of the West, where believers go after reaching enlightenment. The Amitabha Buddha is flanked by numerous smaller figures.  Avalokitesvara is believed to be the Amitabha Buddha's spiritual son.  He was said to have sprung fully grown from the Buddha's head.

Avalokitesvara began to be worshipped in his own right in India between AD 386 and 534 and became highly regarded in China and Japan. Early Buddhist doctrines describe his coming to the rescue of anyone who called out to him for help.