Anatomy of an Artwork: A Liao Dynasty Gilt-Bronze

Anatomy of an Artwork: A Liao Dynasty Gilt-Bronze

Chapters

W ith the fall of China’s Tang dynasty (618–907), the Khitans – a nomadic peoples who inhabited an area of what is now Mongolia and north-east China – thrived in the ensuing period of turbulence. They occupied territories in China, reaching as far as modern Beijing, and ruled as the Liao dynasty (907–1125) over a vast empire that extended to China’s northern frontiers. The Khitans were careful to preserve the unique heritage of their traditional lifestyle, while also incorporating aspects of Han Chinese society, including Buddhism, the most visible religion in their historical records. An exquisite gilt-bronze sculpture of Vairocana hails from this compelling moment in history. Seated on a lotus pedestal, the Buddha is dignified and serene, recalling a similar Liao dynasty figure of Vairocana in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Anatomy of an Artwork

A gilt-bronze figure of Vairocana, Liao dynasty, estimate $200,000–300,000
Important Chinese Art, New York. Auction: 23 September. Enquiries +1 212 606 7332

1. CROWNING GLORY

The Buddha’s tall crown, festooned with ribbons, is similar to those that would have been worn by Liao rulers.

2. GUIDING LIGHTS

The crown is set with the Five Tathagata Buddhas, also known as the Five Directional Buddhas, with Vairocana at the center.

3. IMPORTANT GESTURE

The “wisdom fist” mudra represents supreme enlightenment and identifies this figure as Vairocana.

4. BATHED IN GOLD

The rich gilding is indicative of the figure’s lavish production and its status as a devotional object in Liao Buddhist shrines.

5. IN BLOOM

Vairocana sits in half-lotus pose atop an elaborate, pierced lotus base that recalls the designs of earlier Chinese bronzes from the Tang dynasty.

Chinese Works of Art Sotheby’s Magazine Asia Week
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