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Chinese Guanyin made of lapis lazuli
- a product of cultural exchanges and intersections

Have you ever been overwhelmed by the exquisite nature of an artwork that is encompassed in one single, intensive, color that captures your senses? Yves Klein’s “Blue Venus” (1961) (Pic.1) is such a masterpiece. The, deep-blue color has enveloped the entire figure of the goddess of beauty, epitomizing the concept of attraction itself and immersing the viewer in the profoundness of the dark-cerulean texture.  

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Pic 1: Yves Klein, The Venus of Alexandria, 1962
(Credit: Wikiart, 2022)

The blue has always been a source of awe, tranquility, presence of divine for the first known civilizations and remains potent for today’s audiences. However, in comparison with Klein’s “Blue Venus” (painted plaster), the captivating deep-blue color of centuries-old artworks, jewelry and figurines mainly derived from natural stones, minerals and other materials, one of the most precious and desired among them is lapis lazuli.

The Victoria and Albert Museum hosts a tiny 9cm high Guanyin on the stand (Pic.2), carved from lapis lazuli dated 1900-1950 CE. 

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Pic 2: Guanyin on the Stand, Anonymous, c. 1900-1950 CE.
(Credit: Unknown Source)

It seems it had no other function than to serve as a protective talisman bringing good luck to the owner. Most likely it reached Britain in the third quarter of the last century through Chinese immigrants or Western travelers-dealers of Asian antiquities. Although it can’t be considered as an ancient artefact, though it may appear so, its tradition goes back to the era of The Great Silk Road. Both Buddhism and lapis lazuli reached China due to that immense network of trade routes directly from Afghanistan. The latter was part of a country known as Bactria. The lapis mines that were producing then are still active today. Merchant caravans transported the precious blue lapis across Bactria, on their way to the great cities of the Ancient Mesopotamians, Greeks, Indians, Egyptians, Persians. Bluestone was highly appreciated, accoladed and endowed with magic properties by ancient writers, philosophers and historians all over the world. The Greek philosopher Theophrastus, the successor to Aristotle, viewed the lapis as "the sapphires, which is speckled with gold”. 

Such a perception was cased not only due to the rareness and prestige of the object, but also its sublime color appropriate to the “blue of the heavens, golden glitter alike of the solar disk.” Being charmed by the natural yet enchanting qualities of lapis, it became the analogue of the deities through various belief systems and religions. For instance, the Roman author Pliny the Elder (AD 23/24 – 79) described the stone as “opaque and sprinkled with specks of gold”. It even appeared in The Book of Exodus referring to the Old Testament and was said to prevent miscarriages, epilepsy, and dementia. 

Nonetheless, the lapis lazuli was more precisely treated and cited as a direct reference to gods in Buddhism. Buddha Amitabha's paradise was believed to be paved with gold, silver, and lapis, and that the buddha’s body itself would appear as blue as lapis lazuli. Besides, one of the incarnations of Buddha is known as The Lapis Healing Master or Medicine Buddha, who is referred to as a great physician, the repetition of whose name and mantra is said to grant protection from worldly dangers and freedom from untimely death, as blue signified the concept of loving-kindness and peace in Buddhism.
Associated with the Akshobhya Buddha and the healer “Blue Buddha,” the color blue conveys tranquility, ascension, the infinite, purity, healing and sagacity. In addition, there is a deity in Buddhism, called Bhaiṣajyaguru, depicted seated, holding a so-called “lapis-colored jar of medicine nectar”. In one of the sutras, he is described by his aura of “lapis lazuli-colored light. ” The mentioned attitude towards this precious medium is materialized in artworks dating back to Neolithic period beads (Pic. 3), then in Ancient Mesopotamia, for instance, the Standard of Ur (2600 BCE) (Pic. 4) and the well-known headdress buried in the Sumerian tomb of Queen Puabi (2600-2450 BCE) (Pic.5).

The Ancient Egyptian aesthetics also granted lapis with extraordinary character, pairing the material alongside with gold on the pharaoh Tutankhamun’s (c. 1342 – c. 1325 BCE) coffin and his funeral mask (Pic.6), or employing the blue stone for the figurines of chief deities, such as Ptah- god-creator, maker of things, a patron of craftsmen (945–600 BCE) (Pic. 7).

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Pic 6: (left The Mask of Tutankhamun, c. 1323 BC
(Credit: Wikipedia 2022)

Pic 7: (right) Cult Image of the God Ptah, c. 945–600 B.C
(Credit: The Met Museum, 2022)

In Ancient Rome “divine stone” was valued for its exceptional and vivid color. However, according to historians, the color blue was little used in the classical Roman world, being more associated with the attires and body painting of “barbarians” (for Ancient Rome- uncivilized tribes, invading their empire borders), but this circumstance didn’t prevent Romans from using the stone for intaglio- incised or engraved designs into gold and other precious metals for making rings, necklaces for royalty and upper class. 
In the Middle Ages and afterwards, during the Renaissance and Baroque, lapis attained another function, as an ingredient for the valued blue color- ultramarine. The idea of the “divine origin” of this media was rejuvenated in its employment as the color of the Virgin Mary’s mantle (Pic. 8).

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Pic 8: The Virgin in Prayer, Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato,  1645
(Credit: The National Gallery, 2022)

Moreover, the indication of its spiritual properties was linked with the term “Marian blue” - the shade that became Madonna's official color with the rise of Mariology and the cult of the Virgin. Later the ultramarine was more associated with the concept of mystery, purity, femininity and superiority being used by Baroque and Rococo artists for underlining the features of their protagonists.
Returning to Chinese Guanyin from V & A museum, it’s worth emphasizing that the name of lapis lazuli in Chinese (“青金石”) means “blue golden stone” and it was perceived in the same way, as in other corners of the ancient world. In China, the use of lapis lazuli was mentioned in writings as early as the sixth and eighth centuries BCE. According to the manuscript “Yongchang Governing Records,” drinking out of cups carved of lapis lazuli might ease obstructed labor. Chinese mineralogist Zhang Hongzhao in his work "Shi Ya" writes "The lapis lazuli hue is either like the heavens, or the complex golden shavings are scattered on it, and its shine is more brilliant, if the stars rise beautiful in the sky.”

The color blue in Chinese conception is seen in combination with green or black, standing for healing, trust and longevity, growth and harmony. It’s noteworthy that lapis was treasured especially by Tibetan Buddhists, exiling the character of "Medicine Buddha." Tibetans believed that it’s a "stone of total awareness", helping to bring conscious atonement to the intuitive and psychic aspects of one's nature, expand awareness and intellectual capacity and contact guardian spirits. In the mortal world, the use of this rare, imported stone was restricted to the “Son of Heaven”—the emperor—and the royal court, being worn as buckles or plaques on the belt and used for worship rituals and ceremonies. The ancient Chinese texts pointed to the employment of lapis lazuli for the “altar of heaven”, as the synonyms for “blue” were linked with denoting heavenly blessings. Nevertheless, the love of Chinese emperors and craftsmen undoubtedly belonged to another stone- jade merited for its smooth texture, durability and hues, widely used for decorative, spiritual and auspicious objects. Thus, the references of “blue stone” in a number of records and descriptions, as well as poems authored by Chinese scholars, courtiers and royal family members are not exact, it still remains unclear whether they referred to certain types of jade, turquoise or concretely to lapis lazuli. Anyway, it’s known that there are fewer than a hundred pieces of lapis in the Forbidden City, but the question of how many and what kind of lapis lazuli figurines and other items are in the museum and private collections worldwide is to be explored. 

The Guanyin (觀音, Kwan Yin, Kuan Yin) from the Victoria and Albert museum, embodies the Chinese Buddhist deity- Bodhisattva of Infinite Compassion, who has achieved the highest aim in Buddhism, enlightenment, and may pass into Nirvana, the state of freedom from suffering and the endless cycle of rebirth. Bodhisattvas elect instead to remain in the earthly realm, easing the suffering of all beings and helping mortals to attain enlightenment. The earliest known mention of Guanyin in China comes from a Chinese translation of the Indian sacred text the “Lotus Sutra” in 286, which records the deity’s vow to save those in danger of murder, shipwreck and other forms of hardship. Guanyin’s universal and inclusive nature lies in various ways to read this semi-divine creature: as male or female. 

One of the beloved themes in Chinese Buddhist art- Guanyin was carved, gilded and glazed from wood, metals, jade, bamboo, bronze, natural stones, ivory, etc. There is an impressive number of porcelain Guanyin figures survived nowadays. With an intensity of blue color V & A sample is comparable to a glass-made blue Guanyin figurine from Beijing (Pic9).

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Pic 9: An antique glass-made blue Guanyin figurine from Beijing
(Credit: Carter’s, 2022)

This sculpture portrays the "Guanyin of the South Sea" seated on a rocky cliff overlooking the sea in a relaxed posture known as "royal ease” that is to say one leg hangs down while the other is drawn to the body, the bent knee supporting the right arm. A chapter in the Avatamsaka Sūtra (Flower Garland Sutra) tells how Guanyin sits in a rocky grotto meditating on the reflection of the moon on the water, a metaphor for the illusory nature of all things and a reminder not to be overly attached to earthly matter. The described posture is typical for a wide range of Guanyin statues, the suggested sample has close links with another white porcelain blanc de chine Bodhisattva in the alike pose (Pic10).

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Pic 10: porcelain blanc de chine Bodhisattva, China, antique
(Credit: Unknown Source)

Lapis lazuli Guanyin is depicted holding bead mala in her hand- significant of enlightenment and wisdom. 

If we contextualize V & A Guanyin in the known iconographic schemes of Guanyin depictions throughout Chinese art, its characteristic, differentiated feature may come out to be the companion of the divinity- a little bird. In Buddhism, one of the hallmarks of a bodhisattva is a dove, representing peace and fecundity. On the other hand, there’as a Chinese Buddhist legend of a parrot that became a disciple of Guanyin. According to the tale, a small parrot ventured out to search for its mother's favorite food (in an act of Confucian filial piety) during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) but was captured by a hunter. The bird managed to escape, but upon returning home discovered that its mother had died. The parrot provided her with a proper funeral — another act of filial devotion — but was consumed with grief. Moved by the parrot’s filial love, Guanyin relieved the parrot’s emotional suffering. The bird became a disciple of divinity and offered the deity the gift of a pearl or bead held in its beak. It’s hard to say whether the anonymous author of V & A Guanyin carved a dove or a parrot, the bird could indicate peace, fertility, as long as inkling the noted legend. 

Another attribute of this tiny sculpture is the fiery halo around the head of the deity: This type of nimbus seems to first appear in Chinese bronzes of which the earliest surviving examples date from before 450. They highlight holiness, in Tibetan Buddhism in particular they indicate the "wrathful aspect" of divinities. 

In online auctions all over the world, one can easily find petit lapis figurines of Buddha, Bodhisattva and Guanyin, some of them with their disciplines, also figurative compositions carved with the principles of jade stands, cups, flasks, snuff bottles, small-scaled accessories, jewelry pieces, some of them are of the same time period with the discussed artwork, others- product of our times. Taking into account all the above-mentioned points and analysis, one might assume that lapis lazuli Guanyin from Victoria and Albert Museum truly radiates the synthesis of aesthetic and artistic influences, with its subject matter and medium “imported” through The Silk Road, granted with supernatural, apotropaic functions in China and eventually for its hue, texture and content became an exotic, mysterious and exquisite object for Western viewers and connoisseurs, finding its permanent home at one of the prominent British museums.


Chinese Guanyin made of lapis lazuli
- a product of cultural exchanges and intersections

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