The current pair of figures is of superb quality, sensitively modelled, brilliantly enamelled and preserved in very good condition with their original intact bases intricately incised with visvajra motifs. Their characteristic pointed caps, depicted draping down the shoulders, identify them as lamas of the Gelukpa school, originally founded by Tsong Khapa in the 15th century. 19th century images of such lamas in cloisonné enamel are recorded, including a larger figure of a Gelukpa lama, possibly the Panchen Lama in the British Museum, acquired from A & J Speelman Ltd in 1991, illustrated online, museum no. 1991, 0522.1; and another figure of a Gelukpa lama in the Pierre Uldry collection, illustrated in Helmut Brinker and Albert Lutz, Chinese Cloisonné: The Pierre Uldry Collection, London, 1989, pl. 346.
It is recorded that the Qianlong Emperor decreed the creation of substantial religious structures in cloisonné enamel, including six monumental stupas for the Summer Palace at Chengde in 1764, and twelve more in 1774 and 1782, which are mostly preserved intact in Beijing. Smaller cloisonné enamel models of stupas and shrines are relatively frequently found, but rarely any figures. A cloisonné enamel figure said to be of the Sixth Panchen Lama, created in 1780s to mark his visit to the capital, was included in the exhibition Splendors of China's Forbidden City. The Glorious Reign of Emperor Qianlong, The Field Museum, Chicago, cat. no. 151. In the Yonghegong, Beijing, there is a cloisonné enamel figure of Amitayus, dated to 1770, of identical iconography as the myriad of such dated figures of Amitayus in gilt-bronze, illustrated in Buddhist Statues in Yonghegong, Beijing, 2001, pl. 48. It appears to be the only cloisonné enamel figure in the collection, amidst a multitude of gilt bronze examples. Interestingly, it shares identical decorative features with the current pair of figures, including the rare medallions of stylised coiling birds, suggesting that they emanate from the same workshop.
The current pair was originally sold as part of an exceptional group of six eighteenth century cloisonné enamel Buddhist figures, the only examples that ever appear to have been offered at auction. Of this group, a figure of Syamatara more recently sold at Christie's Hong Kong, 3rd November 1998, lot 1026 for an unprecedented price. Of the same size as the current pair, it is clearly from the same workshop, sharing other closely related features, including the rare decoration on both sides with medallions of stylised coiling birds, similar sensitive modelling of the facial expressions and the same precise form of the lotus base, suggesting that they all originated from the same prestigious source.
The Gelukpa school of Tibetan Buddhism, founded by Tsong Khapa and renowned as that of the Dalai and Panchen Lamas, emerged as the pre-eminent school in Tibet and Mongolia from the 17th century onwards. The principal Gelukpa temple in Beijing, where such figures as the current pair may have been commissioned for, was the Yonghegong.
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