Monumentality, as expressed in monumental size, is not an obvious, indispensable trait of religious imagery. It was introduced to China by the early imperial patrons of Buddhism, the Northern Wei ruling family, and remained an objective for imperial and other ambitious donors. This magnificent head is, however, not only remarkable for its extraordinary size, but equally for its sensitively modelled features. The present head with its fine features and its fleshy lips recessed into rounded cheeks, its cheek bones only subtly indicated, and its head covered with even curls of hair, exudes a strong notion of calm and serenity and stands in the classic tradition of Liao Buddhist imagery.
Buddhism flourished under the Liao dynasty. The prevailing belief in Buddhist cosmology was deep, and people considered the era to be the so-called "last law period", when after five hundred years of Nirvana, the historic Shakyamuni Buddha passed away. The emperor of the Liao Dynasty was an active devotee of Buddhism, and popularised it in his empire. Clear evidence of this can be seen in the traces of the era left at the Yungang Grottoes in Shanxi, the Longmen Grottoes, and the Datong (Xijing) Huayan Temple, and the Sakyamuni Pagoda of Fogong Temple of Ying County, Shanxi province, China, a wooden Chinese pagoda built in 1056.
Fengguo Temple, a Buddhist temple in Yixian, Liaoning Province, first founded in 1020, is famous for the seven large polychrome stucco sculptures of Shakyamuni Buddha, Vipashyin, Sikhin, Visvabhu, Krakucchanda, Kanakamuni and Kashyapa. The technique used to create the current head appears to be the same as for these large sculptures, suggesting that this head may once have graced such a hall of an important Imperial temple. See also the 16 m painted clay figure of Avalokiteshvara in the Dule Temple, created in 984, illustrated in Zhongguo meishu quanji: Diaosu bian [Complete series on Chinese art: Sculpture section], vol. 5: Wudai Song diaoke [Sculptures of the Five Dynasties to Song], Shanghai, 1988, no. 136.
For another large stucco head from a later era, see the Yuan dynasty stucco head of a bodhisattva included in the exhibition J.J. Lally & Co. Oriental Art, Two Thousand Years of Chinese Sculpture, New York, 2008, cat. no. 23. Compare also the three similarly modelled stucco bodhisattvas with elaborate headdresses dated to the Jin dynasty, at the Chongfu temple of Shuozhou, Shanxi province, illustrated in Zhongguo siguan diaosu quanji: Liao, Jin, Yuan siguan zaoxiang [Compendium of Chinese Monastery Sculpture, vol. 3: Statues from the Liao, Jin and Yuan Dynasties], Harbin, 2005, nos 46-48, with description on p. 17. Another bodhisattva of closely related form attributed by the author to Yuan dynasty, in the Huiji temple of Yuanpin, Shanxi province is illustrated in the same volume, ibid, no. 147, with description on p. 55.
The monumental head reveals remnants of the Liang Huang bao chan (Repentance Ritual of the Emperor of Liang) where the slip has flaked off, patently decipherable characters of the inscriptions are as below:
‘wan duan’ (‘Ceaseless and extreme’ bitterness)
‘zuo zei.’ ‘bo’ (‘Ruthless villain. Stripped’ others off their garments)
Lower left cheek:
‘Miaoxiang fo’ (Buddha of Sublime Fragrance)
‘Xukong fo’ (Akasagarbha Bodhisattva)
The Liang Huang bao chan (Repentance Ritual of the Emperor of Liang) is a repentance sutra commissioned by Emperor Wu of Liang (502–587) in hope to liberate his empress from woeful sufferings and purify karmic offences.
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