Chinese Works of Art

A Buddha's Head from the High Tang Period, China's Greatest Sculptural Era

By Sotheby's
Sotheby's upcoming sale, Arts d'Asie on 11 June features an impressive Buddha’s stone head created between the 7th and 8th centuries that was acquired in 1967 from the gallery of Samy Chalom.

W hile originally thought to be from the Northern Song dynasty and linked to stone sculpture from Sichuan, stylistically this head is more representative of Chinese Buddhist stone sculpture from the period that saw the greatest flowering of China’s sculptural arts, the High Tang period under Emperor Xuanzong (r. 713-755). Under his patronage, Buddhism and especially Esoteric Buddhism, flourished, the number of newly founded monasteries and temples exploded as did Imperial and private commissions of Buddhist imagery.

Buddhist sculpture of this period is characterised by the very sensuous physical appearance of the deities represented. This head with his plump face, the elegantly curved almond-shaped eyes beneath sharply defined and arched brows, its well-formed nose and full lips recessed into fleshy cheeks are prime examples of the fully matured style of High Tang Buddhist sculpture. The modelling of the facial features is articulated with vivid realism, the serene expression of the Buddha endowed with the uttermost spirituality.

Vairocana. Center rear wall, Fengxian Si, Longmen Caves. © Michael D. Gunther

Stylistically, the head closely follows the style set by the monumental figure of Buddha Vairocana on the north wall of cave 19 in the Fengxian Temple at Longmen, Henan, built under the emperor Gaozong (r. 628-683) in 676.

The distinctive hairstyle rendered in thick swirls and waves is prevalent in most of the surviving Buddha heads from Longmen that are dated to the High Tang period. Throughout the Tang period, monks and pilgrims travelled to different Buddhist cave temples across China, thereby contributing to the dissemination of Buddhist practices and imagery, transmitting variations in iconography and style from one region to another.

In this way, the artistic style that is visible in Longmen provided a rich source of inspiration to Tang stone carvers in other parts of the empire, the influence of the High Tang Longmen style clearly visible in the present head. This type of coarse, slightly pinkish stone, likely to be from Shanxi province, is particularly conducive for high quality carving in the round, enabling intricate and naturalistic detailing of the facial features as displayed in this head. The head is fully worked in the round and leaning slightly forward suggesting that the head may have been part of a large freestanding figure or a figure with the head detached from the wall.

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