This dignified image of a kneeling celestial being from the Jingyatang collection is moving in its serene expression and unconventional in its iconography. Its three-quarter profile rendering is characteristic of the stylistic language of Northern Wei (386-534) stone carvers, but it is difficult to find a comparable image of such sculptural quality, or any relief of this period that so successfully indicates three-dimensionality. In spite of close stylistic similarities with rock reliefs from China’s main cave temples, particularly those at Longmen and Gongxian, both in Henan province and both commissioned by the Northern Wei imperial family, it cannot be directly attributed to either of those caves. Both these gigantic imperial sculpture projects of course were determinant for the development of Buddhist sculpture and influenced rock carvings as well as free-standing steles of the period, and the present figure clearly stands in this tradition.
Although the headdress and pose of the current figure suggest an apsara, its overall rendering deviates from the common depiction of apsaras known from this period. Apsaras (Chinese feitian, ‘flying in heaven’) tend to be angel-like female figures hovering in mid-air around the Buddha or Bodhisattvas. While they do not have a strong liturgical function in Buddhism, they play an important part in Buddhist imagery, where – depicted as graceful, enchanting ladies playing musical instruments or performing dancing motions – they generally serve as enhancement of the heavenly realm. Indian prototypes clearly served as models, such as the famous early depictions of apsaras from the wall paintings of the Ajanta caves in Aurangabad district, Maharashtra state, created in the 5th/6th centuries and earlier, whose celestial singers and dancers evoke sensual pleasures for divine beings.
Chinese representations generally conform to this image of apsaras as alluring, angelic creatures. The present stone carving, however, represents a gracious and divine, gender-neutral Buddhist image and thus offers a completely different facet of an apsara: its demure pose and pious gesture depict a serious, devout stance that is unusual in this context and may represent a more Sinicized version of these celestial beings. The composed, chaste manner in which this apsara is depicted reminds us of the humble donor figures often shown kneeling, in adoration of the Buddha, rather than the radiant celestial nymphs floating in mid-air. This rendering is further emphasized by the distinct double halo behind the head, which underlines the significance of the spiritual message.
This rendering appears to be extremely rare and no closely related carving appears to be recorded. One similar figure can, however, be seen on the rear wall of the Central Binyang cave, one of the main caves at Longmen near Luoyang, Henan province, which was carved to the order of the Northern Wei Emperor Xuanwu (r. 500-515) and completed in 523. On the aureole surrounding the main Buddha, next to the figure of Ananda, we see an apsara, very similary attired and depicted in the same pose, but carved in a very different style, in more shallow relief; see Zhongguo meishu quanji: Diaosu bian [Complete series on Chinese art: Sculpture section], 11: Longmen shiku diaoke [Sculptures of the Longmen caves], Shanghai, 1988, pl. 40 (fig. 1).
The sensitive, softly rounded carving style, the three-quarter profile rendering and the subliminal smile of the elongated face, created by a deeply carved groove around the mouth, are much closer to the stone reliefs of the Gongxian caves, also in Henan province and equally commissioned by the Northern Wei imperial family, under Emperor Xiaoming (r. 516-528). Although no closely related image is known from Gongxian either, and the workmanship of the present image is more elaborate and detailed than that of related figures at Gongxian, with its scarves draped in two loops it is nevertheless reminiscent of some of the musicians depicted there; see, for example, Zhongguo meishu quanji: Diaosu bian [Complete series on Chinese art: Sculpture section], 13: Gongxian Tianlongshan Xiangtangshan Anyang shiku diaoke [Sculptures of the Gongxian, Tianlongshan, Xiangtangshan and Anyang caves], Beijing, 1989, pl. 23; or Gongxian shiku si [Gongxian cave temples], Beijing, 1963, pls 61-63. Apsaras are, however, rather differently depicted at Gongxian, floating in mid-air; see ibid., pl. 345; Zhongguo shiku: Gongxian shiku si [Chinese cave temples. The cave temples of Gongxian], Beijing, 1989, pls 206-207; and Zhongguo meishu quanji, op.cit., vol. 13, pl. 74.
Compare also a similar head, published in An Exhibition of Chinese Stone Sculptures, C.T. Loo & Co., New York, 1940, cat. no. 15, subsequently sold in these rooms, 17th September 2003, lot 16, and attributed to Gongxian, illustrated in Gongxian shiku [Cave temples of Gongxian], Beijing, 2005, p. 193, fig. 13; and another Northern Wei head fragment, attributed to the Binyang cave at Longmen, published in Yamaguchi korekushion Chūgoku sekibutsu ten [Exhibition of Chinese stone Buddhas from the Yamaguchi collection], Osaka City Museum of Fine Arts, Osaka, 1979, cat. no. 71.
Gongxian figures also show similar curls on either side of the shoulders, but generally only two on each side, see Gongxian shiku, op.cit., pp. 194-7, figs 14, 17-22 and passim. The plump lotus buds, symbols of purity in Buddhism, which adorn the image, filling empty space around the halo, are unusual to find in this context. Lotus flowers are sometimes held by Bodhisattvas and can be seen, for example, in the Binglingsi caves in Yongjing county, Gansu province, but are untypical of Longmen or Gongxian; see Zhongguo Shiku. Yongjing Bingling si [Chinese cave temples. The cave temples of Bingling in Yongjing], Beijing, 1989, passim.
J.T. Tai (1910-1992) was one of the major Chinese art dealers of the 20th century, who started working at his uncle’s antiques shop in Wuxi, Jiangsu province, from around the late 1920s, opened his own shop in Shanghai in the 1930s and moved to New York in 1950 to open a gallery there. For decades he remained one of the major suppliers of Americas great collectors, among them Avery Brundage and Arthur M. Sackler.
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