A Statue's Royal Ease the Institute's Collection Spans 4,000 Years of Art, Including Chinese Bronzes, Ceramics, and Jades; Japanese Art; and Works from Africa and Oceania. It Also Has the Premiere Collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Works outside of Paris. Series: Curators' Tour: The Art Institue of Chicago

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This remarkable Japanese sculpture of a Buddhist deity came to the Art Institute of Chicago in 1995 - the same year Stephen Little did.

This was not mere coincidence: Dr. Little, newly appointed curator of Asian art, was responsible for the carving's acquisition.

A London dealer offered it, and Little was quick to reserve it for the institute. An enthusiastic director and ready funds then brought it rapidly into the collection. Now, Little says, "It's the main focal piece of our Japanese galleries." Little assesses the piece, which is from the Kamakura period (c. AD 1250-1330), as "sophisticated, elegant of posture," and pervaded with a "very serene attitude. It really radiates a wonderfully calm presence. It has a very inward, quiet expression. All this perfectly befits a Bodhisattva." Bodhisattvas, he explains, are "deities who are enlightened - in the same way that a Buddha is. But unlike Buddhas, who eventually enter into the realm of Nirvana, which is essentially a void, Bodhisattvas make a vow to remain in the phenomenal world. Their function is to help all sentient beings attain enlightenment. They are very much saviors. And they are deities to whom anyone can pray for help." This particular statue is the Bodhisattva of Compassion. "In Japanese, its name is Kannon. It emerges in the Buddhist pantheon in India probably in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. There are other Bodhisattvas - of wisdom, of benevolence, and so on - but this particular one, Kannon, becomes the most popular. It's a rather international deity in terms of the spread of Buddhism throughout Asia." It also has Chinese and Sanskrit names. The form of this sculpture is rare. "Usually, the Bodhisattva of Compassion has only two arms," Little says. But this one has six arms, all quite different. They are symbolically related to Mahayana Buddhism (or "The Great Vehicle"), "which is the form of Buddhism that came to China and East Asia from India. In Mahayana Buddhism, it was believed that all beings undergo reincarnation until they become enlightened. When you attain enlightenment, as the Buddha does, you essentially transcend the cycle of birth and rebirth. One can be reincarnated as a human being, or as an animal, or as a demon or even as a god, but until you are enlightened, until you've recognized that all of that is illusory, you can't get out of the cycle. "The Mahayana Buddhist believes there were six realms in which you could be reincarnated. Hell - that's the lowest. The realm of the 'hungry ghosts.' Animals. Demons. The fifth realm is human beings. …