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Possibly Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (Guanyin) in the guise of a Buddha
17th-18th century


Late Ming or early Qing dynasty

Ivory (fossil mammoth ivory) with traces of gilding, ink, and lacquer
H: 45.7 W: 13.0 cm
China

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In almost every regard, this ivory figure is perplexing and intriguing. Until recently it was dated to 1025, based on the inscription carved into the underside of the base. Yet, no figural ivory carvings have been documented from the Song dynasty (960-1279). A few similarly dated ivory Buddhist figures exist in other Western collections, but not many scholars accept the early dates. Were these inscriptions added legitimately, or by an unscrupulous modern dealer? The intricacy of the Freer carving and the exaggerated elongation of the body and hands suggest a date of the seventeenth or eighteenth century. The figure is similar to Dehua (blanc de chine) porcelain figures made during this period. Radiocarbon test results on the ivory do not tell much, since the carver used fossil mammoth ivory more than 32,000 years old. The iconography of this figure was not common until the late Ming dynasty (1368-1644). A raised cranial bump indicates that it is a Buddha; however, the clothing, jewelry, and prayer beads signify a bodhisattva, or enlightened being. This conflict is resolved in a belief that Guanyin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, can assume the form of a Buddha to help other beings. The dragon and miniature Buddha are attributes of Guanyin.