A single object—a beautiful gilt wood sculpture of Gwaneum, the bodhisattva of compassion and the most popular deity in Korean Buddhism—is the focus of this loan exhibition from the National Museum of Korea. Carved in the late Goryeo period (918–1392), this crowned image is now known to be the oldest surviving gilded wood figure in an informal pose. Its posture, with one leg raised and the other lowered, is associated with the deity’s dwelling place, where he sits calmly on rocks above the crashing waves of the sea. The same subject in a similar pose was common in devotional paintings, such as the hanging scroll of Suwol Gwaneum bosal (Water-Moon Avalokiteshvara) now in the collection of the Freer Gallery.
Sacred texts and potent symbolic objects were sealed inside this hollow religious sculpture when it was first placed into worship in the thirteenth century. The practice of adding dedication material to a Buddhist sculpture during consecration ceremonies was believed to transform it into a living body. Recent research conducted by the National Museum of Korea provides new information about this rare sculpture, its hidden contents, and the special rituals that surrounded image consecration in Korea centuries ago.