Sacred island deities: five recently identified Ming Buddhist statues in World Museum Liverpool are possibly the only surviving set of bronze temple sculptures from the sacred Chinese island of Putuo

Citation metadata

Date: Mar. 2009
From: Apollo(Vol. 169, Issue 563)
Publisher: Apollo Magazine Ltd.
Document Type: Article
Length: 3,122 words

Document controls

Main content

Article Preview :

A set of important bronze Buddhist statues in the World Museum Liverpool (formerly Liverpool Museum) has recently been identified as originating from China's most popular pilgrimage island, Putuo. Putuo is the devotional centre for Guanyin, the Goddess of Compassion, and the largest figure in the group in Liverpool is an image of this deity (Fig. 2), believed to have been made in the early 15th century. The other four statues--Wenshu, Puxian, Weituo and Guangong--date from the early 17th century (Figs 4, 5, 8 and 9). Because of storage conditions in the decades after World War II (Liverpool Museum was bombed in 1941), the statues lost their original accession numbers and their history and origins were unknown. By the 1990s the bronzes were scattered in different parts of the stores and were generally in poor condition--Guanyin's crown, arms, symbols and other elements had become separated.

Three of the statues were displayed in the Buddhism area of the World Cultures Gallery, which opened in 2005. In 2006, the fortuitous recognition that the five sculptures were depicted in a lithograph of the 1851 Great Exhibition (Fig. 1) led to elements of their origins and history being recovered. According to the Great Exhibition catalogue, these objects were 'obtained' in China by Major William Edie, an officer based on an island near Putuo, after the First Opium War (1839-42). Further research revealed that not only had the five bronzes featured in the Great Exhibition, but that the Guanyin also appeared at the Manchester Art Treasures exhibition in 1857. The statues sold at Sotheby's for a high price two years later. By the 1860s they formed part of the Joseph Mayer collection. One of the most important antiquarian collections in Britain, it was donated to Liverpool in 1867.

Putuo, a small island east of the major seaport of Ningbo, has been a centre for the veneration of Guanyin since at least the Tang dynasty (AD 618-907).1 However, the island was frequently attacked by Japanese pirates and in 1387 almost all the monks were driven to the mainland. (2) Putuo Monastery, in Ningbo, was founded as an alternative centre. It underwent a revival in 1424 and it is possible, therefore, that the image of Guanyin in Liverpool was commissioned by a member of the local Ningbo gentry for this monastery. (3) It is likely that the five bronzes were made in Ningbo or the surrounding area, known as the Yin county. Ningbo was the centre of an extensive commercial network throughout the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.

Rebuilding the temples on Putuo began in the 16th century thanks largely to the patronage of the Emperor Wanli (1573-1620) and his mother, Empress Dowager Li. (4) This is the period when the other four deity figures were believed to have been made. From the late 17th to the 18th century, Putuo experienced its final renaissance under the patronage of the Emperors Yongzheng (r. 1722-35) and his father, Qianlong (r. 1735-96). By the end of the Opium Wars, in...

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A196382946