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The Rock Bridge at Mount Tiantai

Zhou Jichang , (Chinese, active late 12th century)
Southern Song dynasty

Ink and color on silk
H: 109.9 W: 52.7 cm

Gift of Charles Lang Freer F1907.139

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The Tiantai Mountains are located in Zhejiang Province a short distance from the coastal city of Ningbo. Renowned for their wild, dramatic beauty, the mountains were reputedly the abode of gods and immortals. The natural rock bridge spanning a waterfall is one Tiantai's most famous sights. According to legend, this arch is also a pathway to paradise where the five-hundred luohan, saintly guradians of the Buddhist faith, worship and dwell among magnificent celestial temples. Those who venture to tread this perilous trail, however, find that the bridge, which narrows to a width of several centimeters, is obstructed at its far end by an insumountable block of stone.

Luohan are portrayed in Chinese paintings as Buddhist monks, for whom they stood as holy exemplars. While not directly worshipped, luohan could be induced through rigorous proofs of devotion to assist a pious supplicant in overcoming obstacles to salvation. Such a scene is illustrated in this painting. Three luohan stand on a swath of clouds in the foreground, while two others walk in the clouds above, patrolling the gates of a stately temple. Both groups observe the devout monk Tanyou (fourth century), who attempts to gain access across the bridge. According to the story, Tanyou was initially thwarted by the large stone, but persisted in his endeavor, praying and fasting for several days. Because of his sincerity, the luohan opened a gateway in the stone, allowing Tanyou to enter their heavenly temple and briefly join in the monastic routine. Afforded this taste of paradise, he was sent back to the world to live out his natural years. The painting captures the moment just before the stone was opened.

To learn more about this and similar objects, visit Song and Yuan Dynasty Painting and Calligraphy.

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