The Sixteen Luohans

Artist: Wu Bin (active ca. 1583–1626)

Period: Ming dynasty (1368–1644)

Date: dated 1591

Culture: China

Medium: Handscroll; ink and color on paper

Dimensions: Image: 12 5/8 x 163 9/16 in. (32.1 x 415.4 cm)
Overall with mounting: 13 1/4 x 398 1/16 in. (33.7 x 1011.1 cm)

Classification: Paintings

Credit Line: Edward Elliott Family Collection, Gift of Douglas Dillon, 1986

Accession Number: 1986.266.4


In the Chinese popular imagination, mendicant monks, conjurers, and mysterious hermits were often thought to be disguised “living luohans,” or Buddhist holy men capable of producing miracles. When government corruption and ineptitude imperiled social order, as it did in late Ming times, such superstitious messianic beliefs became more widespread. Here, in one of his earliest extant works, Wu Bin embraced an archaic figure style and followed the tradition of depicting luohans as fantastic eccentrics whose grotesque features belie their inner spiritual nature. Wu’s humorous painting may have had a serious message: holiness can be concealed within an outwardly incongruous form.