This exceptional figure of a Lama embodies the aesthetic vision of the seventeenth century Mongolian spiritual leader and master artist Zanabazar (1635-1723). Sculptures from his atelier, which are commonly finished in the round, are distinguished by their fine gilding, skillful rendering of movement, as seen in the robes, and their distinctive facial characteristics that featured a high forehead, finely arched eyebrows and an aquiline nose. Seated cross-legged on a sumptuous lotus throne, this figure depicts a Lama from the Tibetan Gelupta school, who are known for their tall pointed hats with long flaps covering their ears. This figure’s identification is a matter of speculation, although it may well depict Zanabazar himself. According to historical texts, his birth was foretold to his father two years before his actual birth and acquired supernatural powers during his life. As such, he was a popular figure and depicted in a variety of media.
Zanabazar is closely linked to the renaissance of Buddhism in the Qing dynasty as he is credited with the spread of Tibetan Buddhist teachings in Mongolia. A brilliant scholar, linguist and artist, from his birth he was expected to become a major Buddhist figure. A direct descendant of Chinggis Khan, Zanabazar was consecrated at the age of three and declared an incarnation of the historian Taranatha (1575-1634) when he travelled to Tibet to meet the Fifth Dalai Lama at the age of fourteen in 1649. He was particularly active in politics and diplomacy, and found an ally and good friend in the Kangxi emperor whom he often visited. Numerous legends developed around him, including the story surrounding his ease at lifting a heavy bell and dorje, or his appearance before the Kangxi emperor as Vajradhara, the primordial Buddha.
Similar figures from the Zanabazar school include one depicting Tsongkhapa included in the exhibition Mongolia. The Legacy of Chinggis Khan, Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, San Francisco, 1995, cat. no. 15, together with a bronze image of Zanabazar in the Choijin-Lama Temple Museum, Ulaanbaatarcat, no. 95; one sold at Lempertz Köln, 15th December 2014, lot 583; and a larger figure depicting the Panchen Lama, included in the exhibition Treasures from Mongolia, Barbara Mathes Gallery, New York, 2005, cat. no. 14, together with a figure depicting Zanabazar, cat. no. 8.