AN EXCEPTIONALLY RARE AND IMPORTANT GILT-BRONZE FIGURE OF CHINTAMANICHAKRA AVALOKITESHVARA MARK AND PERIOD OF YONGLE
- 21.1 cm., 8 1/4 in.
seated in the regal posture of rajalilasana, with swaying torso and head inclined, the face painted in the Tibetan manner, an urna on the forehead, his left arm resting at the elbow on his raised left knee, with the hand bent at the wrist and brushing the cheek, his right arm down with the hand resting in his lap, wearing bodhisattva jewellery including earrings, bracelets and armbands, anklets and foot adornments, beaded necklaces, a crown framing the forehead and secured by a band tied over blue painted hair drawn up into a knotted jatamakuta and topped by a cintamani jewel, with tresses falling to the bare shoulders, an effigy of the Buddha Amitabha separately cast and secured behind the central crown leaf, a diaphanous scarf billowing at either side, and wearing a voluminous lower garment gathered at the waist with a jewelled girdle and spreading onto the lotus pedestal, a Yongle reign mark engraved on its upper surface, with a double row of petals encircling the base enclosed by bands of pearls above and below, and sealed with a plate beneath incised with a visvavajra
Sheila C. Bills, "Bronze Sculptures of the Early Ming (1403-1450): Tibet in China, China in Tibet," Arts of Asia, September-October 1994, Cover and p. 80, pls. 12, 13.
The elegant posture of this form of Avalokiteshvara is perhaps the most sensuous and evocative of all Yongle bronzes. The beneficent nature of the bodhisattva is captured in the inclination of the head, gently supported by the back of the hand in a gesture of enduring compassion. Empathy is expressed in the exquisite eyes and lips made accessible and brought alive through painted detail, enhancing his serene downward gaze. The graceful sway of the jeweled torso suggests regal poise and bearing.
The cult of Avalokiteshvara in China is interwoven with that of Guanyin and manifestations of the bodhisattva developed independently from Tibetan Lamaist traditions. This statue of Avalokiteshvara, identified by the small effigy of Amitabha behind the crown, is unmistakably Tibeto-Chinese in style, contrasting markedly with traditional Chinese taste. However, this particular manifestation is unknown in the Tibetan pantheon, revealing the strongly independent iconographic choices made by the court during this fertile period of cultural interaction.
Chintamanichakra Avalokiteshvara in this two-armed form is known in medieval eastern Indian art where the deity is similarly portrayed in rajalilasana supporting his inclined head with his hand and with the elbow resting on the raised knee, Ray, Khandalavala, Gorakshkar, Eastern Indian Bronzes, New Delhi, 1986, cat. 39. From China, a Five Dynasties or Song Dynasty stele of this form is now in the Louvre, Osvald Sirén, Chinese Sculpture, London, 1925, pl. 568. There is a Yuan period gilt bronze example formerly in the Edgar Worch Collection, Berlin; Osvald Sirén, Histoire des arts anciens de la Chine: La sculpture de l'époque Han à l'époque Ming, Vol. 3, Paris, 1930, pl. 120C. However the cult seems not to have been as widespread in China as with other forms of the bodhisattva such as Water Moon Guanyin, at least from the evidence of surviving sculpture and painting. A Tang period gilt bronze of the six-armed form of Chintamanichakra Avalokiteshvara, also seated in rajalilasana with the knee supporting the elbow and head resting on the hand, is now in Yamato Bunkakan, Tokyo; Saburo Matsubara, Chugokyu bukkyo chokoku Shiron, vol. 3, Tokyo, 1995, pls. 752 a.b. The Tang period cult led to the lasting popularity in Japan of the six-armed Chintamanichakra Avalokiteshvara, known as Nyoirin Kannon, but the cult of this form of the bodhisattva seems not to have persisted in China either.
As there is an apparent lack of popular continuity in the cult of Chintamanichakra Avalokiteshvara, coupled with a sudden reemergence in the Yongle reign with at least four statues known (two identical gilt bronzes in Lhasa, Ulrich von Schroeder, Buddhist Sculptures in Tibet, Hong Kong, 2001, vol. II, pls. 353A-C, and one in a private collection), could it be that inspiration for representing this particular iconography was drawn from earlier traditions; the roots of Buddhism in China? There is certainly precedent for this practice: the Speelman Yongle standing Maitreya pays homage to ancient Chinese traditions in its robe style and iconographic posture, that were in turn modeled on Indian and Central Asian originals, see Sotheby's Hong Kong, 7th October 2006, lot 803. Likewise the fabulously engineered Yongle gilt bronze lotus mandalas are modeled on eleventh and twelfth century eastern Indian examples that must have been known to those designing the court's iconographic program. Whether from India, China or Japan, two arms or six, the constant feature of this iconography is the raised knee supporting the elbow and the hand supporting the head, quite different from the so-called 'pensive' bodhisattva lalitasana iconography. In the Indian and the pre-Ming Chinese depictions the other hand rests on the lotus pedestal behind. In the case of the Yongle examples the hand rests in the lap. There appears to be something missing from this hand: a small slot between the middle and ring fingers would have secured an attribute, possibly a Chintamani jewel. The six-armed form, both the Tang and the Japanese examples, holds such a jewel in the right hand resting in the lap.
The statue is as beautifully made as any of the best examples from the Yongle period. Details such as the way the scarf floats clear of the shoulders at the back of the statue is a mark of the care and ingenuity that comes from the hand of a master. This delicate modeling and the exquisite poise of the deity make this one of the iconic Buddhist images of the Yongle reign.