The artists working in the imperial workshops during the Yongle period remain anonymous, but their gilt bronze sculptures have now become recognised as among the most important works of art from the Buddhist world, characterised by faultless casting and rich golden hue. Some fifty-four examples bearing the inscription da Ming Yongle nian shi (‘bestowed in the Yongle era of the great Ming’) have been documented in Tibetan monastery collections; see Ulrich von Schroeder, Buddhist Sculptures in Tibet, Hong Kong, 2001, vol. II, pp. 1237-91. These works have survived in Tibet due to imperial patronage lavished on Tibetan hierarchs and monasteries during the reign of the Yongle emperor. Zhu Di (1360-1424) pursued a bountiful relationship with Tibetan religious leaders during his reign as Yongle (Perpetual Happiness) emperor, but not all bronzes from his workshops were cast as gifts to Tibetans, nor were they all made following the strict Tibetan iconographic canons. A relatively large group depict Chinese Buddhist iconography that was not popular in Tibet, such as the Speelman Udayana Buddha, sold in these rooms, 7th October 2006, lot 803, and the Markbreiter Marichi and Chintamanichakra Avalokitesvara, also sold in these rooms, 7th October 2010, lot 2141 and 2143. With the emperor’s espousal of Buddhism it may be assumed that works were also cast to be worshipped locally, especially those iconographic subjects that depict deities from familiar Chinese Buddhist traditions. The present gilt bronze Buddha shows no signs of having been ritually painted as is normal in Tibetan Buddhist practise, and it could be that the sculpture was made in the imperial workshops for local worship rather than as a gift to a Tibetan hierarch.
The stylistic origin of the Yongle Buddha can be traced to the Yuan dynasty when Tibetan Buddhism became the court religion. Early fourteenth century woodblocks made for the monastery of Yangshen Yuan, Hangzhou, are evidence of a new style appearing in Chinese Buddhist art, see Heather Stoddard Karmay, Early Sino-Tibetan Art, Warminster, 1975, pp. 47-50, pls. 26, 29, 30. The gently smiling faces, full rounded figures and tiered thrones in these woodblock prints reflect the current Newar styles favoured in Tibet, and introduced into China by Nepalese artists such as Aniko (1244-1306). Yongle sculptors could almost have used these illustrations as a blueprint for works such as the Shakyamuni Buddha shrine in the British Museum, W. Zwalf ed., Buddhism: Art and Faith, London, 1985, frontispiece, and the Speelman shrine, sold in these rooms, 7th October 2006, lot 808 (fig. 1). The present Buddha follows much the same style but has no additional throne, and differs in subtle stylistic detail from the British Museum and the Speelman examples: the drape of the Buddha’s robe over the lotus seat gathers linearly in front of the legs, in the manner of the Speelman Vajradhara, sold ibid., lot 811, rather than spreading in undulating folds. And an incised line decorates the hem of the Buddha’s robe throughout, a detail not encountered elsewhere in the oeuvre. Apart from these minor differences the classic Yongle style is evident in the loosely folded cloth over the legs and torso, the ubiquitous drape of the robe falling from the right shoulder, and the bulbous lotus petals of the pedestal, evenly spaced around the base between rows of rounded pearls.
Other than the monumental gilt-bronze Padmapani in the Qinghai Museum, see The Palace Museum, Splendors from the Yongle (1403-1424) and Xuande (1426-1435) Reigns of China’s Ming Dynasty, Beijing, 2010, p. 253, pl. 126, and the Cernuschi Museum example, Ulrich von Schroeder, Indo-Tibetan Bronzes, Hong Kong, 1981, p. 531. Pl. 151E, this Buddha is one of largest extant Yongle marked bronze sculptures, comparable in size to the important Xuande Amitayus, Christie’s Hong Kong, May 31, 2010, lot 1961. The iconographic form, in which the historical Buddha is presented, unadorned but for a simple robe and seated in the earth-touching gesture (bhumishparsha mudra), is relatively uncommon in the corpus of Yongle bronzes, with only one small example recorded in von Schroeder’s survey of Tibetan monastery collections, Buddhist Sculptures in Tibet, op. cit., p. 1280, pl. 358A. Other small examples include the rare Nepalese style Yongle Buddha in the Markbreiter Collection, sold in these rooms, 7th October 2010, lot 2142 and a classic version in the Palace Museum, Splendors from the Yongle (1403-1424) and Xuande (1426-1435) Reigns of China’s Ming Dynasty, op. cit., p. 244, pl. 118, but the present example is by far the largest yet recorded.
The Buddha’s earth-touching gesture recalls an episode from his spiritual biography in which he triumphs over Mara (maravijaya) just prior to his enlightenment. Having vowed to remain in meditation until he penetrated the mysteries of existence, Shakyamuni was visited by Mara, a demon associated with the veils and distractions of mundane existence. The Buddha remained unmoved by all the pleasant and unpleasant distractions with which Mara sought to deflect him from his goal. According to some traditional accounts, Mara’s final assault consisted of an attempt to undermine the bodhisattva’s sense of worthiness by questioning Shakyamuni’s entitlement to seek the lofty goal of spiritual enlightenment and freedom from rebirth. Aided by spirits who reminded him of the countless compassionate efforts he had made on behalf of sentient beings throughout his many animal and human incarnations, Shakyamuni recognised that it was his destiny to be poised on the threshold of enlightenment. In response to Mara’s query, Shakyamuni moved his right hand from his lap to the ground before him, stating, ‘the earth is my witness’. This act of unwavering resolve caused Mara and his army of demons and temptresses to disperse, leaving Shakyamuni to experience his great enlightenment. The episode embodied in this rare Yongle gilt bronze took place upon the adamantine site (vajrasana) at Bodh Gaya, which by tradition was especially empowered to expedite his enlightenment.
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