HAR item no. 64935
The Jinasagara Avalokiteshvara thus displays stylistic characteristics seen in both Yongle and Xuande period sculpture. Although a variant of the arm jewelery and necklace design is seen on a Yongle period gilt-bronze Avalokiteshvara in a private collection, Amy Heller, Tibetan Art, Milan, 1999, pl. 90, the identical bracelet and arm band designs and the compelling physiognomic similarities of the Xuande gilt bronze Amitayus would suggest that the gilded wood statue is perhaps more likely to date to the Xuande period.
This rarely portrayed iconographic subject is further represented in a small Yongle mark and period gilt-bronze formerly on loan to the Royal Tropical Institute in Amsterdam, Jan Van Alphen, Cast for Eternity, Antwerp, 2004, cat. no. 76, HAR item 24524 (fig 3). The Yongle gilt-bronze and the present gilded wood example appear to be the only two recorded sculptures of Jinasagara Avalokiteshvara from either Tibet or China, which suggests that the cult of the deity was particularly popular with the Vajrayana Buddhist establishment in China during the Yongle and Xuande periods. After the early Ming there was reduced engagement with Tibetan Buddhism until the late Ming and early Qing dynasty, when this esoteric form of Avalokiteshvara was included in Rolpai Dorje’s (1717-86) Three Hundred Icons, see Lokesh Chandra, Buddhist Iconography, Delhi, 1991, cat. no. 2278 (75), where the deity is identified as Guhyasadhana Avalokiteshvara. Although the Xuande emperor maintained contact with Tibet, he did not have the same patron-priest relationship that the Yongle Emperor and the Yuan dynasty ruler Khubilai (1215-1294) had with Tibetan religious hierarchs. Rather, he maintained the liberalism and scholarly pursuits favored by his father Hongxi (r. 1424-1426), superseding the expansionist policies of the Yongle Emperor. Patronage of Tibetan hierarchs and monasteries was thus much reduced in the Xuande compared with the Yongle period. Consequently, there is considerably less recorded Xuande Vajrayana Buddhist sculpture compared with the relatively large numbers from the Yongle period. Xuande Buddhist sculpture, such as this gilt-wood Avalokiteshvara, was made principally for local worship rather than as tribute to institutions in Tibet as was so frequently the case in the Yongle period.
Few wood sculptures depicting Vajrayana Buddhist deities have survived from the early Ming dynasty, with the notable exception of an Amitayus now in the Pacific Asia Museum, Pasadena, acc. no. 2001.1.47 (fig. 4). The statue is the same height and style as the Jinasagara Avalokiteshvara and is almost certainly from the same series. And like the Jinasagara Avalokiteshvara, the Pacific Asia Museum sculpture is a rare form of a popular deity depicted in unison with his consort. The two statues are likely to have been part of a larger series that, due to the esoteric nature of the deities, were probably placed in a chapel for private devotion and meditation rather than for public display.
Gilt and polychrome wood is a traditional medium for depicting gods in Chinese temple interiors, as seen for example in the relatively large number of surviving wood temple sculptures of Guanyin from the Song dynasty (960-1279), known for their elegant and regal posture imbued with grace and spirituality. This ancient sculptural tradition thus continued through the early Ming dynasty with this outstanding Xuande period gilt-wood figure of Avalokiteshvara and consort, their bond fulfilling the ultimate Vajrayana Buddhist aspiration to enlightenment through the union of Wisdom and Compassion.
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