This figure of a bodhisattva is remarkable for its graceful pose, naturalistic, yet genderless physique, elegant flowing skirt and scarves, and voluminous flower-decorated hair style. It is a classic example of China’s Buddhist stone carving from the period that saw perhaps the greatest flowering of China’s plastic arts, the High Tang period under Emperor Xuanzong (r. 713-755).
The carving of Buddhist stone sculptures in China was initiated on a grand scale through the patronage of the Northern Wei (386-534) imperial family, who commissioned the construction of rock caves, first at Yungang in Shanxi in the 5th, and soon after at Longmen and Gongxian, both in Henan province, in the early 6th century. The monumental Buddhist sculpture projects realized in these cave temples, created under court patronage by the greatest sculptors of the day, provided an artistic language that dominated the art of Chinese sculpture as a whole and inspired also the production of many free-standing figures and steles.
As the foreign (Tuoba) ruling clan of the Wei was intent on displaying their legitimacy on the Chinese throne, and the early massive Buddha figures were designed to represent Wei rulers of the past and the present, the sculptures they commissioned were not meant to emphasize the foreignness either of the religion or the ruling house. The styles of these early Buddhist images therefore did not follow West or Central Asian models, but the artisans were searching to develop an independent Chinese style. In doing so, they concentrated on rendering the solemn spiritual message rather than in conveying a human side of the deity figures they created. Sculptures thus became rather formal and stylized, often completely disregarding the shape of the body under the garments. The deities thus rendered appeared powerful and distant rather than benevolent and approachable.
A change of attitude is noticeable in the Northern Qi period (550-577), when sculptors were more free to adopt Indian and Central Asian influences. At the Xiangtangshan Caves in Hebei, for example, bodhisattvas of that period are depicted standing with their feet splayed, one heel slightly raised from the ground (Angela Falco Howard et al., Chinese Sculpture, New Haven and London, 2006, pls 3.78 and 3.79). Such more relaxed, if somewhat contrived, poses are characteristic of the iconography manifested earlier in Central Asian caves, which could have been transferred via portable paintings on a paper or textile ground, or small wooden figures or shrines. Similar poses can be seen, for example, in the wall paintings at Kucha in Xinjiang, where bodhisattva figures still show distinctly Western Asian facial features; or on Northern Wei stucco, or clay, sculptures at the Mogao Caves of Dunhuang in Gansu (Zhongguo meishu quanji. Huihua bian [Complete series on Chinese art. Paintings section], vol. 16, Beijing, 1989, pls 184 and 195; and Zhongguo shiku. Dunhuang Mogao ku [Chinese rock caves. The Mogao caves of Dunhuang], Beijing, 1982, vol. 1, pls 20, 21, 23).
In the early Tang (618-907) we begin to see a more naturalistic approach to the depiction of Buddhist deities, for example in late 7th century caves at Longmen, constructed under Empress Wu (624-705), where bodhisattvas are already rendered as more human figures, standing with a slight swerve to the body and performing naturalistic gestures (Zhongguo meishu quanji: Diaosu bian [Complete series on Chinese art: Sculpture section], vol. 11, Shanghai, 1988, pl. 183 and Ryūmon sekkutsu/Longmen Caves, exhibition catalogue, The Miho Museum, n.p., 2001, p. 62).
The full transformation towards a ravishingly beautiful, sensuous naturalism in Buddhist imagery, where the religious message is delivered through a very accessible form of human beauty did, however, only materialize in the High Tang period. This period marks the fully matured style of Buddhist stone sculpture, a style very similarly manifested also in gilt bronze, clay and wood. This period unquestionably marks one of the finest eras of China’s sculptural tradition, which brought forth some of China’s most impressive figurative masterpieces.
The Tang dynasty saw an unequalled flowering of the Buddhist doctrine, which exerted a major influence on all strata of Chinese society right up to the court. In spite of repeated controversies that unfolded around the growing popularity of this religion and the explosion in the number of monasteries – investiture as a monk could be useful for saving taxes – Buddhism continued to grow in popularity until the radical prosecution of Buddhists in the 840s, but even this setback appears to have been of only short duration.
Emperor Xuanzong himself had a much closer affinity to Daoism than Buddhism and undertook repeated efforts to curtail the expansion of the latter religion, although Esoteric Buddhism with its mystical practices did exert a strong fascination on him, as on the Tang aristocracy in general. Famous Tantric masters from India worked in the capital under imperial patronage and performed rituals and magic feats for the emperor. Imperial sculpture commissions do not seem to have ceased either, as is suggested by a hoard of exquisite white marble sculptures from this period, discovered at the ruins of the Anguo Temple, an edifice constructed in 710 next to the imperial palace complex Daminggong in the Tang capital, Chang’an. As an important place of worship of the zhenyan (‘true word’) school of Esoteric Buddhism, it is unlikely that this temple and its grand white marble sculptures with details in gilding, could have been produced without patronage from the imperial family.
In such times of a more restrained imperial support of the Buddhist cause, sculptors may, however, also have felt the need to appeal to private donors and thus to accentuate an attractive physical appearance of Buddhist deities. The present figure with its deliberate indication of a well-formed, youthful, swaying body, the weight clearly shifted to one leg, the fleshy yet compact torso exposed and the legs clearly visible under a thin, clinging garment, is a prime example of High Tang Buddhist imagery in stone. While the figure is depicted as genderless and not specifically identified as the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, the opulent coiffure suggests a female deity and the benevolent face clearly evokes the 'Bodhisattva of Compassion', better known as the Goddess of Mercy, Guanyin.
Although this sculpture stands firmly in the stylistic context of its period, very few closely related works appear to have survived. Even if similarities with contemporary cave sculptures found in situ are obvious, since their style dominated the arts and crafts of the period, variations of facial expression, jewelry and dress are to be expected on free-standing sculptures produced by locally working craftsmen. Bodhisattva figures depicted in a comparable manner can be seen, for example, at the Tianlongshan Caves near Taiyuan in Shanxi, one of the smaller ensembles of rock carvings in north China, with only twenty-one caves. Carving here continued from the end of the Northern Wei right through to the Tang. The faces carved in the somewhat coarse stone are characterized by particularly soft features, and some caves are renowned for their flamboyant Tang carvings in the fully matured Chinese carving style of the High Tang period. Compare three bodhisattva figures from Tianlongshan, one in situ, illustrated in Tianlongshan shiku [Tianlongshan rock caves], Beijing, 2003, pl. 124]; another in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (37.329) (fig. 1); and the third, lacking its head, in the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco (René-Yvon Lefebvre d’Argencé, ed., Chinese, Korean and Japanese Sculpture in the Avery Brundage Collection, San Francisco, 1974, pl. 108). The Tianlongshan bodhisattvas are, however, characterized by a more voluptuous roundness of the faces as well as the bodies.
In its general pose and indication of physique the present sculpture can also be compared to two bodhisattva figures of similar date attributed to the Longmen Caves, both formerly also in the Junkunc Collection, sold at Christie’s New York, 21st September 1995, lots 301 and 302; the former illustrated in Osvald Sirén, Chinese Sculpture from the Fifth to the Fourteenth Century, London, 1925 (reprint Bangkok, 1998), pl. 464, and sold again Christie's New York, 16th September 1999, lot 18; the latter previously sold at Sotheby’s London, 22nd November 1946, lot 56. These Longmen figures, however, display a much more solid physique.
The prevalent carving style of the period reflected by this bodhisattva figure can equally be seen on steles, where two such figures are flanking a central Buddha; see, for example, Matsubara Saburō, Chūgoku Bukkyō chōkoku shiron [Historical survey of Chinese Buddhist sculpture], Tokyo, 1995, vol. 3, particularly pls 656b, 658b, 660b, 663a, and 670, for examples from the High Tang and slightly earlier.
This sculpture was once in the collection of Bettie F. Holmes, better known as Mrs. Christian Holmes (1871-1941) (fig.2), a noted American collector and generous philanthropist. Her collection included Chinese archaic bronzes, early jades, Tang gold and silver, ceramics of various periods, Buddhist sculptures in gilt bronze and stone, and other works of art, but also Japanese, Siamese, Indian, Persian and Egyptian antiquities. She was one of only four American lenders to have sent pieces to the Ausstellung chinesischer Kunst at the Preußische Akademie der Künste, Berlin, 1929; and she contributed nearly two dozen objects to the International Exhibition of Chinese Art at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1935-6, the most important exhibition of Chinese art ever held. Her collection was displayed among fine English and French furniture at her residence, ‘The Chimneys’, a mansion at Sands Point on Long Island, New York. After her husband’s death, she established a hospital and a charitable foundation in his memory and became a major donor to the Philharmonic Symphony Society and the Metropolitan Opera.
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