Media only: Brenda Kean Tabor: 202.633.0523
Barbara Kram: 202.633.0520
Public only: 202.357.2700
Chinese “luohan”—enlightened beings exempted by the Buddha from the cycle of rebirth in order to act as “guardians of the law”—will be the subject of “Guardians of the Law: Chinese Luohan Painting,” an exhibition of 22 late 12th- to 18th-century Chinese paintings that opens at the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art Nov. 22 and continues through May 23, 2004.

Known as “arhat,” in India where the concept originated, luohan were integrated into Buddhist worship in China from the mid-seventh century and enjoyed a cult following.

Luohan belonged to a select group of enlightened monks, chosen to remain in the world as protectors of the faith until all sentient beings attained spiritual liberation. Luohan were believed to possess three kinds of insight, six kinds of transcendent knowledge, and immeasurable merits and virtues, giving them great wisdom and compassion. They were also believed to possess supernatural powers, enabling them to know the thoughts of others or be anywhere at any time.

While their numbers varied over time—increasing from the original 16 to 500—they are usually depicted in groups of four, five, 16, 18 and 500. The earliest Chinese representations of luohan depict them as Indian ascetics with facial features that marked them as foreigners. Later, a sinicized or more Chinese style of luohan evolved. The standard group of 16 luohan was expanded to 18, and Chinese themes such as subduing dragons, taming tigers and crossing the seas were introduced. Over time, depictions of luohan also evolved from individualized Buddha-like seated images in minimal landscapes, to more complex group compositions featuring luohan engaged in characteristic activities such as meditating, mending or washing clothes, as well as expounding on the sutra and performing miracles.

Arranged in chronological order, this exhibition describes major trends in the evolution of luohan painting as executed by regional and court professionals as well as followers of the literati tradition. The exhibition also includes a discussion of a group of paintings from a set of 18 luohan. Four related album leaves and three works of calligraphy are on view in the adjacent east corridor.

Works of note on view include:

  • “Sixteen Luohan,” a section of a long handscroll depicting 16 luohan with their monk disciples and servants-the only surviving work by Fanlong (12th century)-executed in the “baimiao” style of fine line drawing. A water ewer tied to a monk’s waist resembles an eighth century Tang dynasty ewer that is on view.
  • A colorful hanging scroll depicting five luohan and their servant washing clothes and hanging them out to dry. This painting belonged to a set of 100 hanging scrolls illustrating scenes from the daily life of 500 luohan, that were commissioned by a Chinese Buddhist abbot in 1175. They are the earliest extant examples of the 500 luohan as a subject.
  • A hanging scroll depicting the rock bridge at Tiantai Mountain, near Ningbo in Shejiang Province. Renowned for its dramatic beauty, the site is reputedly home to gods and immortals. The bridge spans a waterfall, and is considered to be the pathway to paradise where 500 luohan dwell among magnificent celestial temples. The painting on view depicts the devout monk Tanyou (fourth century) at the moment before he has overcome obstacles to salvation. These are symbolized by a large stone blocking the gateway to Paradise beyond. Three monks in the foreground are swathed in clouds, while two others walk in clouds above, patrolling the stately celestial temple.

The Freer Gallery of Art (12th Street and Independence Avenue S.W.) and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (1050 Independence Ave. S.W.) together form the national museum of Asian art for the United States. The Freer also houses a major collection of late 19th and early 20th-century American art. Hours are from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day except Christmas Day, Dec. 25, and admission is free. Public tours are offered daily. The galleries are located near the Smithsonian Metrorail station on the Blue and Orange lines. For more information, the public may call 202.357.2700 or TTY 202.357.1729, or visit the galleries’ Web site at

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