Buddhism flourished in an era of political turbulence and intense social and cultural change, under the patronage of the founders, the Tuoba clan of the Xianbei people from Central Asia. Having finally unified northern China in 439, their quest for legitimacy as outsiders made them particularly well disposed to a foreign religion. The sculptural style of votive images produced in the dynasty gradually evolved from showing strong Indian influences in the 4th and early 5th century, as seen on lots 3201 and 3202 in this collection, to the current figure, where Gandharan influences are still present in the treatment of the drapery, but the style has evolved to a slightly more sinicised mode of expression.
The figure displays characteristics closely associated with the second half of the fifth century, that may be traced back to Gandharan models, as explained by Hugo Munsterberg in 'A Group of Chinese Buddhist Bronzes From the D’Ajeta Collection’, Artibus Asiae, vol. XVI, no. 3, 1953, p. 193. Munsterberg notes that the Northern Wei artists were inspired by Western, Indian and Central Asian prototypes, all as regards style and iconography, even though they modified these to suit their own artistic traditions and religious conceptions. While the Indian Padmapani is nearly always depicted with a lithe body, swaying hips and the head gently tilted to the side, the overall style resulting in a graceful curvilinear form, the Northern Wei artist has here created an object of worship that is quite different, with its majestic stern standing posture.
The closest published example of this unusually large size, cast with similar powerful flaming mandorla, is an earlier gilt-bronze figure of Padmapani, dated to 453, in the Freer Gallery of Art, accession number F1909.266. Compare also a figure of standing Sakyamuni, dated to 475, unearthed in Mengcun, Mancheng county, Hebei in 1967, and now preserved in Hebei Provincial Museum, illustrated in Zhongguo wenwu jinghua daquan. Qingtong Juan, Taipei, 1993, p. 347, pl. 1249 and in Saburo Matsubara, Chugoku Bukkyo Choukuku Shi Ron/The Path of Chinese Buddhist Sculpture, Tokyo, 1995, vol. I., pl. 35b.
For other dated examples in museum collections, see one from the collection of P.T. Brooke Sewell, now in the British Museum, London, dated to 471, published in W. Zwalf (ed.), Buddhism – Art and Faith, London, 1985, p. 199, pl. 294; and one dated to 485 in the Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, illustrated in Mayuyama, Seventy Years, Tokyo, 1976, pl. 112, together with a slightly later example, dated to 543 of the Eastern Wei dynasty, in the Tokyo National Museum, Tokyo, pl. 117.
A smaller figure of Padmapani, with a cyclical date corresponding to 484, formerly in the collections of Chen Jieqi and Marquis Blasco Lanza d’Ajeta, Italian Ambassador to Japan (1813-84), was sold in our New York rooms, 19th March 2013, lot 12; another, dated to 504, from the Idemitsu Museum, was sold at Christie’s Hong Kong, 29th/30th October 2001, lot 503; and a third, dated to 516/517, from the Stoclet collection, was sold in our London rooms, 11th May 1965, lot 121.
Placing the current bronze in the context of Northern Wei stone sculpture, Mizuno Seiichi in his landmark work Chugoku No Choukoku: Sekibutsu. Kondobutsu/Bronze and Stone Sculpture of China: from the Yin to the T'ang Dynasty, Tokyo, 1960, p. 15, asserts that it is "identical with the early Yün-kang style", of sculptures including the bodhisattva illustrated as fig. 55.
The cult of the bodhisattva Padmapani, known as the "lotus bearer” – a manifestation of Avalokitesvara, or Guanshiyin in Chinese, was especially popular in the Northern Wei period, as demonstrated by the preponderance of Padmapani figures in the surviving number of bronze votive figures, especially large-scale figures of this superlative quality. This much revered deity of compassion and mercy was an emanation of the oldest of the five cosmic Buddhas, Amitabha, and was believed to have created all things animate as well as being the personification of the all-pitying one and the power of creation, represented by the padma or lotus flower held in his hand. As seen here, Padmapani is generally portrayed in a majestic standing posture, holding his symbol, the lotus flower, in his right hand over his shoulder, signifying purity and spiritual elevation. He is dressed like an Indian prince, with the elegant folds of his dhoti hanging down over his knees.
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