An image of 'Luohan'

Unknown Artist

'Luohan'

Location
Lower Asian gallery
Further information

Luohans or Arhats are disciples of Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha. They are the Buddhist equivalent of the original disciples of Jesus and occupy a high place in their spiritual appeal to the masses of worshippers. In China, depictions of Luohans in painting and sculpture had become popular since the Six dynasties period (3rd-6th century). Ascetic in their religious practice, these portraits are clearly modelled after their human counterparts - Buddhist monks who have forsaken the secular world for a life of devotion to the sacred teachings. During the Southern Song period, such paintings were chiefly produced by professional workshops in the capital Linan (modern Hangzhou) or the costal city of Mingzhou (in present day Ningbo). They were generally painted in sets of sixteen or more scrolls. Many such works were brought to Japan by Zen monks who as pilgrims travelled to holy Buddhist sites in Zhejiang, such as Mount Taitai, returning through the port-city of Mingzhou.

This hanging scroll is an excellent example of Southern Song Luohan portraits. It depicts a monk seated with legs tucked up under his robes, while holding a fly-whisk-like object in his left hand; his shoes neatly placed below, and his staff placed to the side - all the details are exquisitely painted and close to the Song mode of describing eminent monks in formal portraits. The focused look on his face and his slightly open lips, together with the turn of the monk’s head in the foreground, all suggest a moment of discourse as the Luohan converses with someone in front of him. During the late Tang and Song dynasties, two genres of Luohan portraits were distinguishable. One was established by the monk-painter Guanxiu (832-912) with Luohans being painted as gaunt, strangely featured individuals; another tradition, in which the Luohan were described in a less distorted and approachable fashion, was associated with the late Northern Song painter Li Gonglin (c.1041-1106). This hanging scroll, depicting the Luohan as a sumptuously garbed, genteel, and cultured individual with idealized Chinese features, clearly follows this second mode. No doubt the painting originally belonged to a larger set of scrolls, probably one of sixteen depicting the Great Luohans to whom Buddha entrusted the Supreme Law before entering Paranirvana.

Asian Art Department, June 2003.

Place of origin
China
Period
China: Song dynasty 960–1279, Southern Song 1127–1279
Year
late 12th century-13th century
Media
Painting
Medium
hanging scroll; ink and colour on silk
Dimensions
118.0 x 40.2 cm
Credit
Purchased 2003 in memory of Goldie Sternberg with assistance from Mr and Mrs F. Street AM, Mrs A. Isles, Mr and Mrs D. Gonski AO, and Friends
Accession number
110.2003