The Dancing Vajrayogini
The goddess Vajrayogini is of supreme importance in the Tibetan Buddhist pantheon, and the very essence of the Chakrasamvara tantra. In this rare and exquisite Xuande bronze the crescent moon on which she dances represents Chakrasamvara. She takes Samvara's ritual implements, the ghanta and vajra, as her principal emblems embodying Wisdom and Compassion, the fundamental combination at the heart of the tantra. Here the goddess is as one with Chakrasamvara and indeed represents the tantra in its purest form.
The Yongle court had perhaps a higher profile in its relationship with Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism than the Xuande, but this exceptional sculpture offers a rare insight into the commitment of the Xuande court to patronage of Tibetan Buddhist practise at the highest spiritual level. Such is the esoteric nature of Vajrayogini that she is rarely portrayed in comparison with other tantric deities, especially in such a complex eight-armed and four-headed form. There does not seem to be any Himalayan bronze in this manifestation recorded in Tibetan monasteries or private collections. However, a rare Yongle bronze Naro Dakini, a more commonly seen manifestation of Vajrayogini, provides evidence of the cult of the goddess in early Ming China, Van Alphen, Cast for Eternity, Antwerp, 2004, p. 217. A fine early Ming painting of Naro Dakini further confirms this devotion, Casey et al, Divine Presence, Barcelona, 2003, pl. 52.
Thus the iconography contributes to our understanding of the Xuande period and the extent of the court's involvement with Tibetan Buddhism. Till now the body of work known from the Xuande court workshops is relatively limited in its range of iconography, especially compared with that of the Yongle, and primarily comprised of sculptures of Buddha and bodhisattvas. The relatively small number of documented Xuande bronzes seems to corroborate official accounts that make no mention of the bestowal of images on Tibetan hierarchs during the Xuande, as happened so frequently in the Yongle period. Xuande bronzes were probably commissioned more for Buddhist temples in China, as suggested by the relatively high number remaining in Beijing repositories and the very few in Tibetan monastery collections. The generally large scale of Xuande bronzes is indeed appropriate for temple worship, whereas the smaller size of many Yongle bronzes suggests the more intimate purpose of gift bestowal. Perhaps all the smaller Yongle works were the personal gifts of the emperor to the Tibetan hierarchs, as described in the records. If smaller works were made as gifts and larger works were for temple settings, it may further explain why there are no small-scale Xuande bronzes, as no personal bestowals are recorded in the Xuande. Indeed the relatively large size of the Vajrayogini statue seems to confirm this trend. Notwithstanding the apparently reduced patronage in the Xuande period, the charm and quality of this Vajrayogini confirms that the emperor retained sculptors every bit as inspired as those in the employ of the Yongle court. The exceptional quality of this sculpture is particularly noteworthy, being one of the finest of the known Xuande statues, which are often perceived to be more restrained than those of the preceding Yongle reign. The Vajrayogini belies this notion with vigorous movement and the inventive way that the artist has found to portray the rare iconography. She dances with such poise on her crescent moon being cradled in the petals of an utpala lily. This use of the flower, a symbol of the goddess Tara, is quite unique in imperial Ming works. Her four radiant faces exude an air of calm and composure amidst the motion of the eight arms surrounding her. As with all early Ming period imperial Buddhist sculpture where the deity is cast separately from the pedestal, the body of the deity, as well as the pedestal, is consecrated and the sanctified materials sealed in by means of a small rectangular plate in the middle of the back: as is the case with the only other recorded Xuande deities in a dancing posture, the two bodhisattvas previously in the Speelman Collection, Sotheby's Hong Kong, 7th October 2006, lot 805. The casting and gilding of this lovely and animated image of Vajrayogini is flawless, as is to be expected for such a masterpiece from the command of the Xuande emperor.
Sotheby's would like to thank Jeff Watt of the Rubin Museum of Art for his help with the iconographic identification and insight into the tantric practise surrounding Vajrayogini.
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