Bodhisattva figures became popular through the patronage of the Northern Wei imperial family, who commissioned the carving of rock caves in Longmen and Gongxian, both in Henan province, in the first quarter of the sixth century, which typically show seated or standing Buddhas flanked by two bodhisattvas. Besides these massive stone carvings in cave temples, many free-standing steles, also often with two bodhisattva figures on either side of a central Buddha, were commissioned. Such carvings followed the artistic language introduced by the grand Buddhist cave sculpture projects, which exerted an overwhelming influence on Chinese sculpture of the period in general.
The political and social turmoil that accompanied dynastic changes in the sixth century significantly impacted Chinese Buddhist practice in several ways which are reflected in religious art of the period. In their search for refuge beyond the chaos of the material world, a variant form of Pure Land Buddhism, in which devotion to Amitabha (or a bodhisattva such as Avalokiteshvara) allowed adherents to be reborn in Sukhavati (the Western Paradise of the Buddha Amitabha), grew in popularity. Consequently, images of bodhisattvas proliferated in the third quarter of the sixth century, as evidenced by the present and numerous contemporaneous examples. The Sui dynasty emperors used this invigoration of Buddhist faith as an opportunity to embark on major building projects, including the construction of pagodas, temples and religious statuary, as a means of unifying the fragmented empire. This religio-political agenda also led to increased communication across eastern Eurasia, which contributed to the transmission of Buddhist concepts and artistic styles from South and Central Asia into China and from China to Korea and Japan. This had the concurrent effect of diversifying the visual vocabulary of each region of the empire.
Comparable sandstone sculptures are hard to find, particularly of this size. This sublime and sensitively rendered sculpture can be placed in the context of other sculptures from the Tianlongshan Caves, Shanxi province, and most closely related to the sculpture from Cave 16, traditionally assigned to the Northern Qi dynasty; see several bodhisattva heads published in Tianlongshan shi ku [Tianlongshan grottoes], Beijing, 2004, pls 145-147, 151 and 156. Further related heads believed to have come from Tianlongshan include one in the Minneapolis Museum of Art, Minneapolis, coll. no. MIA.L2015.172.8; and two in the Nezu Museum, Tokyo, coll. nos NZM.20081 and NZM.20065. Compare also a carved figure of Guanyin in the Detroit Institute of Arts, accession 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.
After his visit to the site in 1922, Osvald Sirén observed that the sandstone used to carve the Tianlongshan figures was extremely fragile, making them particularly prone to damage and loss of detail, noting that ‘the stone at T’ien Lung shan is of a soft sandy quality and has comparatively little power of resistance. Some of the statues have been eaten away in part by water’ (ibid., p. 55). The soft and supple nature of the sandstone utilized in the carving of the Tianlongshan sculptures makes them especially fragile, but it is also the key to their sheer beauty and sensitive naturalism, as is evidenced by the present head.
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