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Guanyin with a Willow Branch

Unknown13th Century

Kyoto National Museum

Kyoto National Museum

The bodhisattva Avalokitêśvara (Ch. Guanyin, J. Kannon) lounges on a towering rock rising out of the ocean with a willow branch set in a vase at her side and the young acolyte Sudhana ( J. Zenzai dōji) in supplication riding on a lotus petal floating on the waves. The illustration is based on the Garland Sutra’s ( J. Kegonkyō) depiction of the paths to enlightenment, with the abode of Kannon on the floating island of Potalaka depicted in refined embroidery.
In particular, the hexagons and hemp-leaf stars densely filling the garments have been exquisitely rendered in flat gold thread (hira kinshi) following the contours of the pattern and couched with yellow thread with not a loose stitch, displaying a technical sophistication that takes the breath away.
The inscription at the top of the embroidery bears the date 1295 (Yuanzhen 1) and was brushed by the Chinese Chan ( J. Zen) priest Yuji Zhihui (n.d.), active in Hangzhou during the Yuan dynasty, thus making this an important piece in which both the place and latest possible production date are known. Although embroidered Buddhist images crafted stitch by stitch have been produced in East Asia since ancient times, in Japan, embroideries focused on belief in the Buddha Amitābha ( J. Amida), such as raigōzu (images of Amida welcoming the departed to the Pure Land), were produced popularly for private worship mainly in the Kamakura through the Muromachi periods. This piece confirms that contemporaneously the Chinese also cherished small, embroidered Buddhist images suited to private worship.

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