A MAGNIFICENT LARGE GILT-COPPER FIGURE OF MANJUSHRI NEPAL, MALLA PERIOD, 14TH CENTURY
Himalayan Art Resources item no. 13435
Originally gifted to the late Canadian Ambassador to India and Nepal, HE Chester A. Ronning by the King of Nepal, HM Mahendra Bir Bikram Shah during his years of service between 1954-1965, this magnificent figure of Manjushri encapsulates the greatest achievements of Nepalese metalwork.
This bold, powerful, solidly-cast gilt copper figure is a remarkable testament to the skill and craftsmanship of the Newar ateliers of the Kathmandu Valley. The bodhisattva demonstrates classical Newar style with its use of luxuriant gilding and decorative stone and glass lozenge inlay, and exhibits many of the hallmarks of the derigueur Nepalese style with low hairline and broad forehead; wide almond-shaped eyes; the elegant facial profile with curved nose; the rectangular turquoise-inlaid urna; powerful shoulders; dynamic movement and posture; and elaborate beaded jewellery and tassels. Due to the liberal use of turquoise, as well as the remnants of blue polychromy in the hair, it is probable that this figure was commissioned for a Tibetan patron.
Compare the pattern and movement of the cascading tendrils; turquoise-inlaid necklace; the girdle with copper and inlaid glass lozenges, secured with flowing sash; and the delicately articulated and splayed toes with another Newar fourteenth century gilt copper figure depicting Manjushri, also probably made for the Tibetan market, see Helmut Uhlig, On the Path to Enlightenment: The Berti Aschmann Foundation of Tibetan Art at the Museum Rietberg, Zurich, 1995, p. 113, cat. no. 64. Compare also the stone-inlay design and scrolling motif in the triple-leaf crown, as well as the glass-inlaid jewel finial with another fourteenth century gilt copper figure of Avalokiteshvara in the Rubin Museum of Art, see acc. no. C2005.16.8.
The prowess of the Newar artists of Nepal's Kathmandu Valley was internationally recognised. In 1260 the Mongol emperor Khubilai Khan (1215-1294) commissioned a memorial stupa to Sakya Pandita (1182-1251) to be erected at Sakya monastery in Tibet. Phagspa (1235-1280), the Sakya hierarch and Khubilai's imperial preceptor, summoned a group of some eighty of the best artists in Nepal to fulfil the charge. Aniko (1244-1306), the group's leader, was a precocious talent as an architect, weaver, painter and sculptor, and so impressed his sponsor that Phagspa recommended his talents to Khubilai. Aniko was embraced by the emperor and rapidly elevated to prestigious posts. Amongst many honours he was appointed Supervisor-in-chief of All Classes of Artisans, and later Minister of Education in charge of the Imperial Manufactories Commission, responsible for the court's supply of precious materials such as gold, pearls and rhinoceros horn. Official documents of the Mongol dynasty record Aniko's biography, and describe monuments, Buddhist sculpture, painting and textiles made to his design, see Karmay (Stoddard), Early Sino-Tibetan Art, Warminster, 1975, pp. 21-24. He was awarded great wealth and status at court.
Aniko's arrival at the Mongol court with twenty-four fellow Newars established a Nepalese presence in the Chinese imperial workshops that would last for centuries. They brought an invaluable familiarity with Himalayan Buddhist iconography when Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism became the state religion of the Yuan dynasty, and a renowned ability to adapt to the artistic traditions of a sponsor. Yuan period Chinese works of art that reveal Nepalese influence include a statue of a bodhisattva in the Freer Gallery that is a done in the uniquely Chinese medium of dry lacquer, but with pronounced Newar style in the sculptural detail, ibid., p. 22, pl. 11. An imperial Vajrabhairava mandala in kesi, a favoured medium of the Mongol court, is drawn in the Newar style seen in Tibetan paintings associated with Sakya monastery, see James Watt and Ann E. Wardwell, When Silk was Gold, New York, 1997, cat. no. 25. And another Yuan period kesi mandala integrates pure Nepalese scrolling vine motifs with landscape done in the classical Chinese blue-green style; ibid., cat. no. 26. All three works of art are unmistakeably Chinese while subtly incorporating Nepalese characteristics. The Manjushri meanwhile exemplifies the indigenous Newar sculptural aesthetic of the fourteenth century: a sculpture made for Newar or Tibetan patrons in the prevailing Nepalese style of elegantly modelled, richly gilded and bejewelled statues imbued with spirituality. Indeed the type of sculpture with which Aniko would have been familiar in his homeland, and that Phagspa would have sought to fulfil Khubilai's commission at Sakya monastery. This divine statue remains one of the finest examples of fourteenth century Nepalese sculpture, and a document to the artistic genius that brought renown to Newar artists throughout the Himalayas, and at the imperial courts of the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties.
Born in China of missionary parents and fluent in Chinese, Mr. Ronning was widely regarded as Canada's leading expert on China. Mr. Ronning carried out a confidential mission to Hanoi in 1966 in an attempt to get peace talks going between the United States and North Vietnam. Mr. Ronning was made a Companion of the Order of Canada, the country's highest honor, in 1971 and was awarded the Order of Excellence from Alberta in February. For further biographical information, see Brian L. Evans, The Remarkable Chester Ronning: Proud Son of China, Alberta, 2013 and also Audrey Ronning Topping and Lawrence R. Sullivan, China Mission: A Personal History from the Last Imperial Dynasty to the People's Republic, Baton Rouge, 2013.