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A Pensive Treasure

Denise Patry Leidy and Soyoung Lee
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

Denise Leidy

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

Soyoung Lee

Curator Soyoung Lee joined the Department of Asian Art in 2003 and is responsible for The Met's Korean art collection, programs, and galleries. 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 15th through the 19th century.