The present sculpture is sumptuously carved with the attributes of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, known in China as Guanyin. The head is characterized by fleshy features that harmonize the Sui dynasty’s emergent trend toward naturalism with the inherited idealized forms that conventionally conveyed the purity of Buddhist subjects. Here, Avalokiteshvara’s broad arched brows and the sweep of the lowered lids lead the eye down the straight nose to the plump lips and slightly upturned chin, before following the softened jawline to the plump cheeks and returning upward to the crown of the head. The full oval face is counterbalanced above by a tall diadem richly carved with an image of the Buddha, floral features, wave-like borders, and streaming tassels in a combination of high relief and openwork detail. Even in its opulence, the diadem follows the standard Sui formula of a three-sided structure with aesthetic attention given to its band. These traits suggest that the head belongs to a mature phase of Sui artistic production, when craftsmen synthesized styles from within and beyond China into graceful yet dynamic compositions that expressed the transcendental majesty of the Buddhist subject.
Excavations at Qingzhou (Shandong) have yielded Northern Qi and Sui limestone standing bodhisattvas, detailed with polychrome pigments and gilding, that similarly bear full, oval faces crowned by intricate diadems with petaled lobes, pendent tassels, and articulated bands, suggesting a geographic and cultural origin for this style of carving; for a Sui dynasty figure of Guanyin from Longxing si, Qingzhou see Denise Patry Leidy and Donna Strahan, Wisdom Embodied: Chinese Buddhist and Daoist Sculpture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2010, fig. 13; for a related Northern Qi bodhisattva, see Buddhist Sculpture: New Discoveries from Qingzhou, Shandong Province, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 2001, cat. no. 69. Similar traits, particularly with respect to the openwork tri-lobed diadem and elaborate diadem sash, are also seen on a Northern Qi precedent, probably from Western Shanxi or Shaanxi province, dating to around 575, included in the exhibition Chinese Buddhist Sculpture from the Wei through the T’ang Dynasties, National Museum of History, Taipei, 1983, cat. no. 18. In the subsequent Sui dynasty, these decorative elements developed more fluid lines and the bodhisattva’s face relaxed into a gentler expression, as seen in the carved figure of Guanyin in the Detroit Institute of Arts (acc. no. 26.128) dated by inscription to 581, and attributed to Shaanxi or Henan province by Osvald Sirén in Chinese Sculpture from the Fifth to the Fourteenth Century, vols 1 and 4, New York, 1925, pl. 305. Related sculptures in the Cleveland Museum of Art (acc. no. 1962.162), the Metropolitan Museum of Art (acc. no. 42.152.5a, b), and the Arthur M. Sackler Museum at Harvard University (acc. no. 1943.53.43) represent the next phase in the Sui Buddhist sculpture wherein the bodhisattva’s features soften, reflecting a more naturalistic quality, and the rhythmic carving of the elaborate diadem serves to exalt the deity as a spiritual exemplar. These are precisely the qualities seen in the present example, suggesting that the sculpture was carved around or following the turn of the 7th century. This approach to figuration continued through the end of the Sui dynasty, as evidenced by a bronze standing bodhisattva with a nearly identical diadem and face shape, published in Saburo Matsubara, Chinese Buddhist Sculpture: A Study Based on Bronze and Stone Statues other than from Cave Temples, Tokyo, 1966, pl. 233.
Stone sculptures of the Sui dynasty are rare. A closely related carved limestone head dated to the Sui dynasty and attributed to Shanxi province, formerly with C. T. Loo, was exhibited in Buddhist Sculpture from Ancient China, J. J. Lally & Co., New York, 2017, cat. no. 10. A polychrome-painted limestone head of a bodhisattva, with a similar face shape but more elaborate coiffure and simplified hair ornaments, sold in our Hong Kong rooms, 5th April 2016, lot 2871.
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