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Asian art

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late 12th century-13th century


Unknown Artist


Luohans or Arhats are disciples of Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha. They are the Buddhist equivalent of the original disciples of Jesus and occupy a high place in their spiritual appeal to the masses of worshippers. In China, depictions of Luohans in painting and sculpture had become popular since the Six dynasties period (3rd-6th century). Ascetic in their religious practice, these portraits are clearly modelled after their human counterparts - Buddhist monks who have forsaken the secular world for a life of devotion to the sacred teachings. During the Southern Song period, such paintings were chiefly produced by professional workshops in the capital Linan (modern Hangzhou) or the coastal city of Mingzhou (in present day Ningbo). They were generally painted in sets of sixteen or more scrolls. Many such works were brought to Japan by Zen monks who as pilgrims travelled to holy Buddhist sites in Zhejiang, such as Mount Taitai, returning through the port-city of Mingzhou.

This hanging scroll is an excellent example of Southern Song Luohan portraits. It depicts a monk seated with legs tucked up under his robes, while holding a fly-whisk-like object in his left hand; his shoes neatly placed below, and his staff placed to the side - all the details are exquisitely painted and close to the Song mode of describing eminent monks in formal portraits. The focused look on his face and his slightly open lips, together with the turn of the monk’s head in the foreground, all suggest a moment of discourse as the Luohan converses with someone in front of him. During the late Tang and Song dynasties, two genres of Luohan portraits were distinguishable. One was established by the monk-painter Guanxiu (832-912) with Luohans being painted as gaunt, strangely featured individuals; another tradition, in which the Luohan were described in a less distorted and approachable fashion, was associated with the late Northern Song painter Li Gonglin (c.1041-1106). This hanging scroll, depicting the Luohan as a sumptuously garbed, genteel, and cultured individual with idealized Chinese features, clearly follows this second mode. No doubt the painting originally belonged to a larger set of scrolls, probably one of sixteen depicting the Great Luohans to whom Buddha entrusted the Supreme Law before entering Paranirvana.

Asian Art Department, June 2003.


Place where the work was made



late 12th century-13th century

Media category


Materials used

hanging scroll; ink and colour on silk


118.0 x 40.2 cm


Purchased 2003 in memory of Goldie Sternberg with assistance from Mr and Mrs F. Street AM, Mrs A. Isles, Mr and Mrs D. Gonski AO, and Friends


Not on display

Accession number



Where the work was made

Shown in 2 exhibitions

Exhibition history

Referenced in 4 publications


Yin Cao, The Connoisseur and the Philanthropist: 30 years of the Sternberg Collection, 'Chinese Art', pg.12-23, Sydney, 31 Jan 2014, 18 (colour illus.).

Hui-shu Lee, Exquisite Moments: West Lake & Southern Song Art, New York, 2001.

Jackie Menzies (Editor), The Asian Collections Art Gallery of New South Wales, China 'Buddhist Art', Sydney, 2003, 7 (colour illus.), 96 (colour illus.). The colour illus. on page 7 is a detail of this work.

Kokka, "A Song Hanging scroll Arhat”; Itō Daisuke, Japan, 1997, 1226, 20-24.