The bodhisattva guanyin is an archetype of compassion and wisdom that has inspired devotion among the faithful since the early centuries. A bodhisattva is an individual who, although he or she has not attained Buddhahood in this lifetime, will eventually lead all sentient beings to liberation from the eternal cycle of rebirth. The term bodhisattva derives from the Sanskrit word bodhi, meaning “awakening” or “enlightenment.” Bodhisattvas share many of the same attributes as a fully enlightened Buddha, such as wisdom, compassion and power.
Guanyin (also called Avalokiteshvara or Quan Yin) is one of the most widely revered bodhisattvas, and her feminine features have led some Christians to compare her to the Virgin Mary. This sixteenth-century ivory sculpture represents a popular iteration of Guanyin as the Bestower of Sons and shows her smiling benevolently toward a baby boy. During the Ming dynasty, such works of art were often displayed in domestic spaces and were used as personal devotional objects.
Typically Guanyin holds a willow branch in her right hand, which symbolises the ability to heal and provide food for all living beings, and a cup or vase with a liquid that can relieve suffering and purify the body and mind. The current figure is also seated in padmasana, the lotus pose, and appears to be reading a sutra. It is remarkably similar to a larger Ming 17th century gilt bronze figure of Avalokiteshvara in Water Moon Form that sold at Christie’s Hong Kong on 1 June 2011, lot 18. This bodhisattva, also known as Kannon, became a major focus of Japanese Buddhism from the 7th century, and she is still venerated today.