PROPERTY FROM THE LE CONG TANG COLLECTION
This iconographic form in which the historical Buddha is seated with his right hand in the earth-touching position, bhumisparsha mudra, recalls a momentous episode from his spiritual biography in which he triumphs over Mara just prior to his enlightenment. Having vowed to remain in meditation until he penetrated the mystery of existence, Shakyamuni was visited by Mara, a demon associated with the veils and distractions of mundane existence. The Buddha remained unmoved by all the pleasant and unpleasant distractions with which Mara sought to deflect him from his goal. According to some traditional accounts, Mara’s final assault consisted of an attempt to undermine the bodhisattva’s sense of worthiness by questioning Shakyamuni’s entitlement to seek the lofty goal of spiritual enlightenment and the consequent freedom from rebirth. Aided by spirits who reminded him of the countless compassionate efforts he had made on behalf of sentient beings throughout his numerous animal and human incarnations, Shakyamuni recognised that it was his destiny to be poised on the threshold of enlightenment. In response to Mara’s query Shakyamuni moved his right hand from the meditation position in his lap and touched the ground stating “the earth is my witness”. This act of unwavering resolve caused Mara and his army of demons and temptresses to disperse, leaving Shakyamuni to experience his great enlightenment. The episode took place at the adamantine throne, vajrasana, beneath the bhodi tree at Bodh Gaya, eastern India, a location said to have been especially empowered to expedite the Buddha’s enlightenment.
Close comparisons with dated Yongle statuary and calligraphy enable a firm attribution of the current stele to the Yongle period. The style and iconography of the Shakyamuni Buddha is closely related to that on two famous Yongle reign-marked gilt-bronze figures of Shakyamuni Buddha, one in the British Museum, illustrated in Ming. Fifty Years that Changed China, British Museum, London, 2014, fig. 195, the other from the Speelman collection, included in James Watt and Denise Patry Leiden, Defining Yongle: Imperial Art in Early Fifteenth-Century China, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2005, pl. 24 and sold in these rooms, 7th October 2006, lot 808 (fig. 1). The images of the Buddha on the current stele and on both gilt-bronzes are depicted seated on similar lotus pedestals on elaborate square thrones. They all share the same structure of the flame-shaped mandorla, filled with dense scroll containing luxuriant blossoms of Indian lotus. The same treatment of the throne, mandorla and Indian lotus decoration can also be clearly seen on an image of a Bodhisattva on one of the leaves of the album, Collection of Buddhist Sutras, dated twelfth year of the Yongle reign (1414), sold in our New York rooms, 19th March 2015, lot 427, and now in the Long Museum, Shanghai (fig. 2).
A Yuan dynasty prototype for the current stele can be seen in a sculpture on the so-called Cloud Platform at the Juyongguan, created between 1343 to 1353, at a mountain pass northwest of Beijing through which the Great Wall passes, illustrated in Defining Yongle: Imperial Art in Early Fifteenth-Century China, op. cit., fig. 14. The iconography is almost identical, with matching elements including the throne and lotus pedestal, but the depiction of the Buddha on the current Yongle stele is more at ease, with softer contours and a greater degree of naturalism in the freely draping robes. The unusual carved imagery on the current stele of a garuda depicted biting nagas (snake deities) reveals the influence of Indian and Nepalese motifs introduced to China via Tibet during the Yuan dynasty. Such images of Garuda continued to be used in the Yongle period, as shown by an extant brightly-coloured earthenware figure of Garuda now preserved in the Nanjing Municipal Museum, originally created to adorn one of the arched doorways of the pagoda at Da Baoensi commissioned by the Yongle Emperor in Nanjing to commemorate his parents, illustrated in Ming. Fifty Years that Changed China, op. cit., fig. 190.
No other comparable Yongle stele appears to be preserved in any museum collection. The only other example recorded in private hands is a stylistically identical limestone stele of Shakyamuni Buddha of matching size and iconography, marginally differing in the depiction of the mythical animals enclosed within the mandorla, illustrated in Kaikodo Journal, no. 5, Autumn, 1997, no. 88, and sold at Christie’s New York, 21st September 2004, lot 139. This stele, formerly in the collection of Emmanuel Dimitri Gran (1894-1969), was reputed to have come from a pagoda in Nanjing. Emmanuel Gran, an architect from St Petersburg who escaped the Russian Revolution and moved to Shanghai after 1917, amassed a collection of Chinese art in the 1920s and 30s. After moving to California in 1948, he eventually in New York, where he worked as an architect for the Hilton hotels. It seems highly possible that the current stele, acquired in San Francisco in 1948, was originally collected together. Certainly, the historical context, combined with the precise iconography and artistic style of the current stele, would support it being the legacy of an Imperial project by the Yongle Emperor at Nanjing.
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