Sculpture of Bodhisattva

Artefact of the month - February 2021

When an object enters a museum and acquires the status of a museum artefact, it is then treated in a special way. It receives a number that is marked both in the diary and physically on the artefact itself, the necessary conservation measures are assessed, and the artefact is photographed and stored taking into account the humidity and temperature conditions required by the material.

Cataloguing the artefact is just as important. The artefact carries a piece of history, both in its physical characteristics and in the oral or written information accompanying it. Accordingly, information related to the artefact, including its use, dimensions and materials, is stored in the collections management system; it is also needed in exhibition and research activities. The materials and methods used in the manufacture of the artefact reflect the manufacturers and their needs and skills, and the nature and use of the artefact more broadly reflect its cultural context.

Sometimes, only one or a few items are acquired at a time, but it is also common for a larger group of items to receive its own main number. From the point of view of our non-European ethnographic collections, these include items accumulated in the course of field work, donations received by legacy or estates of deceased relatives, for example. Items collected by researchers are well documented, but in the case of items acquired by a distant great-aunt in some far-off corner of the world a few generations ago or a collection accumulated by an individual enthusiast over the years, the exact acquisition data or sometimes even the origin of the items may not be known.

In such cases, it may be difficult to identify the item. An example of this is the Buddhist sculpture chosen as the artefact of the month, which entered the National Museum of Finland in 1961 as part of a legacy of about five hundred objects. The collection, which contains East Asian ritual objects in particular, had been acquired by senior lawyer and collector Eric Idestam (1900–1960) from antiques shops in London, for instance. Some of the objects in the collection are accompanied by more detailed information about the acquisition, but not all of them, and this sculpture was catalogued with an uncertain country of origin, “Japan?”.

Physical descriptions of artefacts are still written in the catalogue, although all artefacts are now also photographed in the Collections and Conservation Centre. This sculpture has been recorded in the original main catalogue as follows:

“A sculpture, gold-plated bronze, portraying a two-armed deity with a human face sitting on an 8-corner bell-shaped lotus stand. Legs bent forward and down. The left hand, bent at waist height, holds a short scroll-like object with a ribbon tied around its middle, and the ribbon descends into the lap and continues into the right hand resting on the knee. There is a crown-like headdress, with a wide ‘tuft’ on the top of the head. Equipped with a detachable tapered back plate with a round hole in the middle and raised decorations on the surface. Height approx. 31 cm.” A literary reference has also been added to the description: “Compare the stand with Toshimitsu: Japanische Plastik, Pl. 162.”

In this way, the sculpture, which found its way from East Asia to Finland via London and eventually ended up in the National Museum, had been properly recorded. But even though the life of the object changes when it enters the museum, it does not end. This sculpture was displayed at an exhibition of Buddhist cult objects in 1980, but its identification remained uncertain even then. In the exhibition catalogue, the country of origin of the stunningly beautiful sculpture was thought to be China, and the old deity was regarded as Wen-shu, the Chinese manifestation of Bodhisattva Manjushri of transcendental wisdom in Mahayana Buddhism.

The bodhisattva – the Sanskrit word for “enlightenment being” – has a scroll in his left hand and, in Buddhist sculptures, you can often identify the character through the position, the clothing and the symbols it holds. Wen-shu is often depicted holding in his left hand either a ruyi wand or, like here, a scroll, a sutra containing the teachings of Buddha.

However, the Chinese Wen-shu often rides a lion, but this bodhisattva sits in a position referring to meditation with his eyes closed on a lotus stand. Is this why an entry has been added to the original catalogue calling for a comparison of the sculpture with an image in the 1961 book Japanische Plastik? However, that image does not represent a bodhisattva, but Buddha, whose seat on the lotus stand resembles the base of the artefact of the month but does not help to identify the sculpture.

Nevertheless, in the main catalogue of the ethnographic collection, a newer entry has been added to the cataloguing information of the sculpture. This has also been made by a Finnish expert, and it returns to Japan: “Fugen (Samantabhadra), scroll.” The sculpture is definitely a bodhisattva and, like Manjushri, Bodhisattva Samantabhadra, in its Japanese form Fugen Bosatsu, is one of the most important deities of the Mahayana school. He represents both meditation and compassionate action, and may also be depicted holding a scroll. Most often, however, Fugen is portrayed with his hands held together and on a lotus seat on an elephant, and it is possible that this sculpture also used to include an elephant that, over time, became detached and separated from the deity. Fugen was an important deity in the Heian period of Japan (794–1185), but no estimate of the age of this sculpture has yet been given.

The sculpture was also viewed by Japanese researchers a few years ago, when our Japanese Buddhist collections were reviewed and photographed for inclusion on the Japanese Buddhist Art in European Collections website hosted by the Tokyo-based Research Center of International Japanese Studies of the Hosei University and the Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies of the University of Zurich from Switzerland. The website involves 56 museums from 21 European countries, and the National Museum of Finland will also soon be represented with about 80 artefacts. Both this sculpture and other Japanese Buddhist objects of the National Museum have already been included in the Finna service, and it is also possible to send questions and comments to the museum via Finna.

All in all, it is always interesting to follow the journey of an object after it has been removed from its original context in its place of manufacture and use, exported from its own culture. Over the course of the journey, the object always receives new interpretations. It may turn from a sacred object into merchandise at an antique shop and a treasure admired by a collector, and eventually end up in a museum, where attempts will be made to discover and restore its original purpose and significance, albeit in an environment very different from the original one. Physically, the bodhisattva is currently stored at the Collections and Conservation Centre in Vantaa, but its life will also continue in electronic form on the Internet and, therefore, as it is widely accessible, the number of viewers and interpreters will also increase.

Pilvi Vainonen


Japanische Plastik, ed. Hasumi Toshimitsu 1961. Verlag F. Bruckmann, München.

Oi munkit, ponnistelkaa lakkaamatta! Buddhalaisten kulttiesineiden näyttely. O munkar, sträven framåt oupphörligen! Utställning av buddhistiska kultföremål. Oh, ye monks, strive onwards diligently! Exhibition of Buddhist ritual objects. 18.4.-15.6.1980. Helsingin kaupungin taidemuseo. Helsingfors stads konstmuseum. Helsinki City Art Museum.

VK5561 62
The East Asian sculpture (VK5561:62) has also been photographed for the website of the National Museum of Finland for a collection site that will open soon. Photo: Ilari Järvinen/National Heritage Agency, 2020.
Asiatische plastik 162
Image source: Japanische Plastik, 1961.
Eric Idestam M012 H61100 485
Senior lawyer Eric Idestam (1900–1960) was a prominent collector of East Asian religious objects. Photo: National Heritage Agency.