PROPERTY FROM AN EAST ASIAN PRIVATE COLLECTION
While the iconography of the sculpture has its origins in the complex systems of Vajrayana Buddhism favoured by the Tibetans, the style is evolved from the artistic milieu created around the religious and political contact between China and Tibet during the early Ming dynasty. The patronage of Tibetan Buddhism at the early Ming imperial courts is well documented, reaching its apogee during the reign of the Yongle emperor Chengzu, where the Tibetan hierarch Dezhin Shegpa, the Fifth 'Black Hat' Karmapa, was especially favoured by the emperor. They established a patron-priest relationship (T. cho-yon) in much the same way as Kublai Khan (1215-1294) had done with the Tibetan Sakya order hierarch Phakpa (1235-1280) during the Yuan dynasty.
It was during the Yongle period that numerous gilt bronzes were produced as imperial gifts for visiting Tibetan dignitaries, or sent with emissaries to monasteries in Tibet. The majority of the bronzes from the Yongle workshops were thus small, easily transportable, personal meditation statues. The court annals of the Xuande period suggest that the production of bronzes as gifts to Tibetan monasteries and their hierarchs was curtailed. And the remaining corpus of Xuande Vajrayana gilt bronze sculpture bears this out, consisting mostly of larger bronzes made for use in Lamaist temples within China. This trend continued in the Zhengtong and Jingtai through to the reign of Chenghua, where the large scale of many of the known Vajrayana Buddhist gilt bronzes from these periods suggests they were commissioned for local temple worship.
Bronzes bearing inscriptions dating them to throughout the middle of the fifteenth century maintain the basic style founded in the Yongle/Xuande period. The loose fit and elegant undulations of the robes on a gilt bronze Bhaisajyaguru Buddha, dated by inscription to the first year of the Jingtai dynasty, 1450, echo the style of the earlier Ming examples, see Gems of Beijing Cultural Relics Series: Buddhist Statues 1, Beijing, 2001, pl. 115.
The pedestal of the large bronze figure of Vajrabhairava, offered by Rare Art, bears an inscription that dates the sculpture to 1474 of the Chenghua period, and the sculpture bears numerous stylistic references to the Yongle examples, such as the Vajrabharaiva from the Speelman collection, sold in these rooms, 7th October 2006, lot 812.
Vajrabhairava is a major deity in the pantheons of the Sakya and Kagyu orders of Tibetan Buddhism, both of which had significant influence at the courts of Yuan and early Ming dynasty emperors. The deity is represented in an imperial Yuan period Sakya order kesi mandala now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, see Watt and Wardwell, When Silk was Gold, New York, 1997, cat. no. 25. In the Yongle period, the deity is the subject of a gilt bronze lotus mandala, see Ulrich von Schroeder, Buddhist Sculptures in Tibet, Hong Kong, 2001, vol. II, pl. 350B.
In addition to the Sakya and Kagyu orders, Vajrabhairava is especially important to the Gelug order founded by Je Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), who was deemed to be Manjushri incarnate and for whom the wrathful form of the bodhisattva was thus highly significant. The head of the Gelug order received a number of imperial invitations, but was finally represented at the Yongle court by his disciple Sakya Yeshe (1355-1435), who was well received in Beijing and found much favour. Sakya Yeshe subsequently represented the Gelugpa at the court of the Xuande emperor. The Gelug order was the emergent religious denomination in Tibet as the fifteenth century progressed. Given the supreme importance of the deity to the powerful Gelugpa order it is more than likely that the Vajrabhairava was commissioned for a Gelug monastery in China, for which there would have been imperial endorsement. And as an important example of fifteenth century Chinese metalwork it is likely to have been cast in foundries closely associated with the political and spiritual centre of Tibeto-Chinese relations, Beijing.
It was not only the founder of the dominant Tibetan Gelug order, Tsongkhapa, who was identified with Manjushri. Emperors of China had long promoted the concept of themselves as the earthly form of the lord of transcendent wisdom. And thus Vajrabhairava, the all-powerful manifestation of Manjushri, is symbolic of the ultimate authority of the emperors. This awe-inspiring statue serves to enforce the imperial mandate while representing the highest ideals of the spiritual path to Buddhist enlightenment.
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