Perspectives Religion and Spirituality

Compassion, Mercy, and Love: Guanyin and the Virgin Mary

How two independent cultures—feudal Europe and imperial China—depicted divine figures with incredible visual similarities.

May 7, 2021

Left: A wooden sculpture of a woman holding an infant child. Right: A stone sculpture of a lounging figure

During the Middle Ages—a period of over one thousand years—people of various cultures across the world practiced independent religious faiths, ranging from western feudal Europe to imperial China, while also maintaining cross-cultural exchange. Surprisingly, certain works of art in both western Christian and eastern Buddhist cultures seem to share visual similarities. Both contexts produced images of divine figures that represent concepts like compassion, mercy, and love: the Virgin Mary in medieval Europe, and Guanyin in imperial China.

These examples pose interesting questions about how pre-modern artists visualized different aspects of divinity in their respective cultural contexts. The Christian and Buddhist devout understood the Virgin Mary and Guanyin, respectively, in similar manners and archetypes of imagery, despite the fact that they did not directly influence one another until later periods of Imperialism and Colonialism in Asia. Centuries of shifts in these representations illustrate how people across the world have envisioned human compassion and mortal emotions.

In western Christianity, the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ’s mother, was a popular focus of personal devotion. She was often depicted with her infant child, emphasizing her role as a holy maternal figure and mediator between humanity and the divine. Through this easily understood archetype, she became a popular intercessor for devout Christians across Medieval Europe, where various types of “Virgin and Child” works of art proliferated

Guanyin is the Chinese translation of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. Bodhisattvas are enlightened beings who chose to stay on earth as accessible examples for Buddhist faithful to follow. Originally depicted as a male or gender-neutral entity able to take on thirty-three manifestations, Avalokiteshvara is a compassionate savior who hears the woes of humankind, regardless of age, gender, or social class. However, in imperial China, Guanyin became increasingly cemented as a female figure. Similar to the Virgin Mary, Guanyin became a popular intercessor for humanity to understand divine salvation.

Divine authority

Left: A wooden sculpture of a woman holding an infant child. Right: A stone sculpture of a lounging figure

Left: Enthroned Virgin and Child (1150–1200). France, Auvergne. Walnut with gesso, paint, tin leaf, and traces of linen, 27 × 11 ¼ × 11 in. (68.6 × 28.6 × 27.9 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, The Cloisters Collection and James J. Rorimer Memorial Fund, 1967 (67.153). Right: Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara in Water Moon Form (Shuiyue Guanyin), 11th century. Chinese, Liao dynasty (907–1125). Wood (willow) with traces of pigment; multiple-woodblock construction, 46 ½ × 37 ½ × 28 in. (118.1 × 95.3 × 71.1 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Fletcher Fund, 1928, (28.56)

These eleventh- and twelfth-century images of the Virgin Mary and Guanyin embody distinctly supernatural, divine authority figures, far removed from later images that suggest compassion and tenderness.

Enthroned Virgin and Child (1150–1200), currently on display at The Met Cloisters, is a counterpart to a sculpture from about 1175 to 1200 included in the exhibition Crossroads: Power and Piety. In both sculptures, mother and child are rendered in a stiff and rigid form that typifies the theological concept Sedes Sapientiae or “Throne of Wisdom.” The infant Jesus, depicted as a diminutive mature figure rather than a child, represents divine wisdom and is seated upon the Virgin, who acts as his throne. Both the Virgin and Child’s emotionless expressions, coupled with the strongly linear symmetry, suggest the timeless permanence of divine authority in the Christian context.

This eleventh-century Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara in Water Moon Form (Shuiyue Guanyin), currently on display in Gallery 208, depicts Avalokiteshvara in a relaxed, leisurely pose, with one knee raised and the other crossed in front. This posture represents the “Water Moon” manifestation of the bodhisattva in his personal paradise. Avalokiteshvara is adorned within an ornate crown and necklace. Relaxed but strong and formative, Avalokiteshvara beckons the audience forward, ready to hear the cries of the world.

Both of these sculptures would have been placed in public churches or temples. The Virgin and Child also might have been carried in religious processions outside the architectural setting of the church, while Avalokiteshvara would likely have been shown at a monastery altar. Despite their different poses, both figures convey a divinity distinctly removed from the real experiences of mortal humans.

Divine rulers

Left: an ornate shrine depicting a mother and child. Right: a tapestry depicting a woman in a garden

Left: Triptych with the Coronation of the Virgin, 1325–50. German, Cologne. Ivory with polychromy and gilt decorations and metal mounts, 15 ½ × 9 × 2 ½ in. (39.2 × 23 × 6.1 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917, (17.190.211). Right: Unidentified Artist, (Chinese, late 16th century). Guanyin as the Nine-Lotus Bodhisattva, 1593. Hanging scroll; ink and color on silk, 72 ½ × 44 in. (183.8 × 112.1 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Rogers Fund, 1918 (18.139.2)

Later examples of Guanyin and the Virgin Mary take on imperial or royal guises modeled after mortal counterparts. Their devotion is more accessible, albeit to a select, elite audience.

The painted silk scroll Guanyin as the Nine-Lotus Bodhisattva (1593) depicts Guanyin in a feminine form within a palatial garden—a scene typical of Ming Dynasty court painting. She is seated before Shancai, a young male pilgrim. The feminine bodhisattva with child embodies a more maternal understanding of Guanyin, rather than depicting her as a detached, divine authority. This relationship is reinforced by the fact that in this painting, Guanyin represents Empress Dowager Cisheng, mother of Emperor Wanli, a devout Buddhist who associated herself with Guanyin—the lush, blooming garden was likely modeled after Imperial Ming palaces, and the empress’s personal seal is on the painting. Here, Guanyin, while still a powerful authority figure, is more readily viewed within a familiar human context.

The Triptych with the Coronation of the Virgin (1325–50), a precious ivory carving with details in gold and paint, depicts angels adoring the Virgin Mary, crowned as the Queen of Heaven. Here, the Virgin holds the infant Jesus in a naturalistic manner. One angel above places a crown on her head, while two others flank her in the folding panels of the triptych. Cologne, Germany, flourished as a center for ivory carving in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries through the aid of Paris-trained artisans; in this Coronation scene, the Virgin might be dressed in the style reminiscent of a Northern European queen.

Both of these works served as personal devotional objects exhibited privately within their wealthy, high-status owners’ homes. Their owners would have interacted with them and experienced them intimately. In both works, divine maternal figures still convey a measure of holy authority, but one that derives from their respective society’s understanding of imperial and royal authority.

Divine compassion

Two figurines of mothers holding a child

Left: Enthroned Virgin and Child, ca. 1260–80. French, Paris. Elephant ivory with traces of paint and gilding, 7 ¼ × 3 × 2 ¾ in. (18.4 × 7.6 × 7.3 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, The Cloisters Collection and Michel David-Weill Gift, 1999 (1999.208). Right: Bodhisatttva Guanyin, 16th century. Chinese, Ming dynasty (1368–1644). Ivory, 9 ¾ × 10 ¼ × 2 in. (24.8 × 26 × 5.1 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Rogers Fund, 1913 (12.219.1)

In this last pairing, we see the full realization of divine compassion in both the Virgin Mary and Guanyin. Though strikingly similar, these statuettes were created centuries apart. Both depict an affectionate exchange between a mother and her small, male child—a scene that transcends cultural and religious difference while nonetheless taking on specific connotations among their respective audiences.

Elephant tusks from Africa were a prized, rare commodity in Medieval Europe used in intricately carved sculptural objects. Ivory represented purity and chastity; characterized by its pearly, lustrous pale coloring, it was an appropriate choice of medium for the Virgin and Child. This small and intimate thirteenth-century French statuette is thought to have originally been painted and gilded, and perhaps set within a larger shrine or tabernacle. Rather than the Queen of Heaven, here the Virgin is presented simply as a loving mother embracing her child. Her face is soft and affectionate; the delicate draping of her robes creates a sense of humanity, responding to the form of her body. Drawn into the intimate exchange between parent and child, we are reminded of the sheer compassion and love that the Virgin Mary has as a mother for her son.

The sixteenth-century ivory statuette of Guanyin represents a popular iteration known as the “Bestower of Sons.” Radically different from earlier depictions, here Guanyin affectionately carries a male child in her arms. Both smile benevolently toward the viewer. The figure’s slight sway is likely due to curvature of the elephant tusk, but it adds to the soft and gentle depiction. As the “Bestower of Sons,” Guanyin was venerated by women who sought to have sons of their own. In Confucian China, women were expected to stay within their domestic spaces, where such personal devotional objects offered opportunities to interact intimately with the divine. This statuette creates a direct link as the faithful sought to emulate and aspire toward this image of divine compassion and motherhood.

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Comparing works of art depicting the Christian Virgin Mary and the Buddhist Guanyin shows the universal compassion of divine maternal figures who inspire the faithful. Across time and cultures, this ever-shifting archetype represents changing attitudes towards divinity. Depictions of both these holy, compassionate figures have undergone various phases as worshippers have sought to understand them throughout the centuries—from remote and heavenly divinity, to tender and humanly maternal intercessors.