The stylistic origin of Yongle gilt bronzes can be traced to the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) when the court espoused Tibetan Buddhism. Early fourteenth century woodblocks made for the monastery of Yangshen Yuan, Hangzhou, are evidence of a new style appearing in Chinese Buddhist art, see Karmay, Early Sino-Tibetan Art, Warminster, 1975, pp. 47-50, pls. 26, 29, 30. The gently smiling faces, full rounded figures and tiered thrones in these woodblock prints reflect the Newar styles favoured in Tibet, and introduced into China by Nepalese artists such as Aniko (1244-1306). Indeed these illustrations could almost have been used as templates for Yongle bronzes such as the Speelman enthroned Buddha, see Sotheby’s Hong Kong, October 7, 2006, lot 808, and the similar example in the British Museum, see Zwalf, Buddhism, Art and Faith, London, 1985, cat. no. 305, frontispiece.
Tara, Mother of the Victorious Ones, is worshipped by Buddhists as a saviour and liberator from samsara, the earthly realm of birth and rebirth. In Tibetan mythology the goddess is believed to have emerged from a lotus bud rising from a lake of tears shed for the suffering of sentient beings by the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, with a face “… embodying the delicacy of a million lotus blossoms …”, see Mullin, Mystical Verses of a Dalai Lama, New Delhi, 2003, p. 57. As in Tibet, the cult of Tara was popular at the Yongle court, with at least ten imperial gilt bronze examples remaining in published collections, including one formerly in the Usher P. Coolidge Collection, see Karmay, Early Sino-Tibetan Art, Warminster, 1975, p. 88, pl. 56; one in the Art Institute of Chicago, see von Schroeder, Indo-Tibetan Bronzes, Hong Kong, 1981, p. 517, pl. 144D; one in the Chang Foundation, see Spencer, Buddhist Images in Gilt Metal, Taipei, 1993, p. 111, pl. 48; two in the Berti Aschmann Foundation at the Rietberg Museum, see Uhlig, On the Path to Enlightenment, Zurich, 1995, pp. 146-8, nos. 92-3; two in Tibetan monastery collections, see von Schroeder, Buddhist Sculpture in Tibet, Hong Kong, 2001, pp. 1276-8, pls. 356C-6F; one in the Palace Museum, Beijing, Splendours from the Yongle (1403-1424) and Xuande (1426-1435) Reigns of China’s Ming Dynasty, 2010, p. 247, pl. 120; and the Speelman Tara, see Sotheby’s Hong Kong, October 7, 2006, lot 806.
As testimony to the variety and originality found in Yongle sculpture, many of these bronze figures of Tara are markedly different from one another while remaining faithful to standard stylistic requirements of the Yongle ateliers. Some are willowy and ethereal in appearance like the present example from the Tamashige Tibet Collection, which is stylistically similar to the Speelman Tara and the Tara in the Palace Museum, Beijing; the larger of the two in the Aschmann Collection is more austere, while the Tara formerly in the Coolidge Collection has a charmingly rounded figure. All however are finished and gilded to perfection, all with the Yongle hallmark style of jewellery and lotus pedestal. The Tamashige Tara is imbued with a lightness and delicacy as befits the sensuous and youthful female form of the goddess. Her hands are held in gentle and expressive gestures of charity and reassurance. And the compassion that Tara is said to have for all sentient beings is expressed in the sublime countenance of this exquisite Yongle bronze.
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