Bodhisattva figures of related type 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 6th 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 such bodhisattva figures on either side of a central Buddha statue, were commissioned in that century, which followed the artistic language introduced by these grand Buddhist cave sculpture projects, which exerted an overwhelming influence on Chinese sculpture of the period in general.
This majestic figure of the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara from the Jingyatang collection stands out because of its fine, even facial features and the attention paid to its elegant, decoratively stylized crown and garment with loose scarves and knotted ribbons. The low-relief carving style and almost complete disregard for the shape of the body under the garments is characteristic of the Northern Qi period. Although many features were introduced to Buddhist stone carving in the preceding Northern and Eastern Wei (534-550) periods, stylistic variants would naturally have been introduced by locally working sculptors.
Although the present figure fits neatly into the sculptural tradition of the mid-6th century, close comparisons are hard to find. The depiction of the long scarves hanging down in two loose overlapping loops in front of the figure’s knees is particularly unusual. Although bodhisattvas of this period tend to be similarly dressed, the two scarves are mostly crossed near the waist and inserted through a ring-shaped disc.
Matsubara, who published this bodhisattva figure in his ground-breaking study of Buddhist sculpture in 1966, compares the style to that of a stele with a seated Avalokitesvara figure of the Northern Qi period from Jincheng in Shanxi province, about a hundred miles north of Longmen and Gongxian, see Matsubara Saburō, Chūgoku Bukkyō hokiza shi kenkyū/Chinese Buddhist Sculpture: A Study Based on Bronze and Stone Statues Other Than Works from Cave Temples, Tokyo, 1966, p. 272, fig. 245.
In its overall shallow relief treatment of the body, with only the hands protruding in higher relief, this figure shows similarities to many bodhisattvas that flank Buddhas at Gongxian, which are depicted with similarly parted hair, rudimentarily indicated under similar crowns decorated with lotus petals and circular jewel-like discs, with a similar mandorla behind the head, and dressed in similar garments, although they differ considerably in detail. Compare, for example, a Northern Wei Bodhisattva figure from the north wall of cave 1 of the Gongxian cave complex, whose garment is draped around the lower legs in more complex folds and whose scarves are crossed through a disc, illustrated in Gongxian shikusi [Cave temples of Gongxian], Beijing, 1963, pl. 69; in Zhongguo shiku. Gongxian shikusi [Chinese caves. Gongxian cave temples], Beijing, 1989, pl. 69 (fig. 1), and p. 209, figs 13-1 to 13-5, where it is compared with related figures from other walls in cave 1 and from other caves; and in Gongxian shiku [Cave temples of Gongxian], Beijing, 2005, p. 24, fig. 36, and p. 33, fig. 55.
Related bodhisattva figures, with similar crowns and garments, but also with more stylized garment folds, can also be seen at the Longmen caves, for example, on the north wall of the Putai cave, which dates from the Northern Wei period, see Longmen shiku [Longmen caves], Beijing, 1980, pl. 105.
The sharply delineated features of the face with its narrow, almond-shaped eyes are reminiscent of the large seated Eastern Wei bodhisattva figure in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, illustrated in Osvald Sirén, Chinese Sculpture from the Fifth to the Fourteenth Century, London, 1925 (reprint Bangkok, 1998), pl. 112 and in Matsubara Saburō, Chūgoku Bukkyō chōkoku shiron [Historical survey of Chinese Buddhist sculpture], Tokyo, 1995, vol. 1, pl. 243; other Eastern Wei steles showing bodhisattvas with related treatment of the garments and crown are published ibid., pls 242, 281b, 282b, 284; and a related free-standing Avalokitesvara figure of the Eastern Wei period, but with more stylized garment folds, in the Tokyo National Museum, is illustrated in Matsubara, op.cit., 1966, pl. 111b.
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