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Frame by Frame

A work of enduring mysteries, memories

Museum of Fine Arts

It’s very beautiful, very old (about 1,500 years), and very reassuring. And couldn’t we all do with a bit of that?

It’s also congested with mystery. Scholars still don’t know whether this larger-than-life-size limestone sculpture, one of the earliest and finest Chinese pieces in the superlative Asian collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, represents a bodhisattva — an enlightened being fired by compassion to help all other living beings — or a Maitreya, a so-called “Budhha of the Future.”

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It’s a question of iconography. The crown suggests a bodhisattva; the cross-legged pose a Maitreya.

But the real mystery, of course, resides not in such questions of definition, but in the figure’s extraordinarily affecting presence: its half-closed eyes; its composed, archaic smile (typical of Eastern Wei dynasty sculpture); the sinuous, repeating lines of the drapery (influenced by the Greco-Roman drapery of Indian Gandharan art) that continue seamlessly from its torso into its stone base; and the even more sinuous outline of the whole sculpture in profile, which resembles nothing so much as a cobra preparing to strike. (And maybe, who knows?, that is how enlightenment happens. I’m waiting.)

How did this piece, which was excavated from the site of the famous White Horse Monastery — the so-called “cradle of Chinese Buddhism — near Luoyang, come into the MFA’s collection?

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It’s a lovely, poignant story, which ties together two of the most important figures in the museum’s history. One of them, Okakura Kakuzo, saw it just after it had been unveiled in the White Horse temple.

Okakura, well known as the author of “The Book of Tea,” was not only one of the most influential figures on cultural life in Boston — he served as head of the MFA’s Asian art department and was a friend and adviser to Isabella Stewart Gardner, among others — but a critical figure in the appreciation of Japanese culture generally.

According to Kojiro Tomita, his successor at the MFA, Okakura liked this sculpture so much that, having been rebuffed in his efforts to acquire it at first, he returned two years later to the site, only to find it gone.

Not knowing any of this, Denman Waldo Ross, the great Harvard University art professor, painter, collector, and MFA trustee (he gave the MFA more than 11,000 objects over many years), saw the sculpture in a dealer’s shop in Paris in 1913. Recognizing its quality, he bought it.

When he returned to Boston, he learned that Okakura, his very close friend, had died.

Immediately, he gave the sculpture to the museum in memory of Okakura. You will find it there today.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@
globe.com.
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