The annexation in 553 of Sichuan by China’s northwest (then ruled by the Western Wei dynasty) is essential in understanding the formation of Northern Zhou bodhisattva images. The Northern Zhou style is marked by lavish surface decoration, stemmed from the aesthetic of the northwest and was transmitted from India, forging deep roots in Sichuanese Buddhist art. As seen on the present carving, figures of this period were heavily adorned with necklaces and ornate crowns, thus accentuating their sense of mass.
While further aspects of Northern Zhou carving, such as the columnar body surmounted by a square head with broad nose and lips, remain, the characteristic stockiness has been replaced by a refined lengthening of the silhouette which is typical of Sui dynasty figures. This is evident in the slender waist, emphasized by the sash that is draped over the shoulders and meets at the front and back with a clasp, and the tassel hanging from the center of the necklace. It is interesting to note, however, that the hand retains the archaistic heaviness of earlier carvings.
The figure holds a 'pure water bottle' in the left and, the missing right hand would probably have held a willow branch – attributes that identify the subject as Guanyin. Compare a smaller limestone carving, inscribed and dated to the third year of Baoding (corresponding to 563), also holding a vase in its left hand, published in Matsubara Saburō, ibid., pl. 350a and b, together with an undated figure, pl. 350c. The style of carving of this figure is comparable with much larger bodhisattva figures elaborately fashioned from limestone, also attributed to the late Northern Zhou to early Sui dynasty; for example see one from the Arthur M. Sackler Collection, now in the collection of Columbia University, New York, coll. no. S3342; another in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, published in Denise Patry Leidy and Donna Strahan, Wisdom Embodied. Chinese Buddhist and Daoist Sculpture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2010, p. 173, pl. A16; and a third, in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis, published in Hai-wai yi-chen / Chinese Art in Overseas Collections. Buddhist Sculpture, Taipei, 1986, pl. 60.
Examples of related Sui dynasty marble carvings include a figure, excavated in 1979 from Hongxing cun, Wuzhangyuan town, Qishan, Shaanxi Province, and now preserved in the Qishan Museum, Qishan, illustrated in Wang Wenyao & Fu Meilin, ‘Suidai hanbaiyu zaoxiang/White Jade Statue of Sui Dynasty’, Shoucang [Collections], 2010, vol. 12, p. 67, pl. 4; and another, in the Shaanxi Museum, published in Matsubara Saburō, op. cit., pl. 534b.
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