The iconography of this exquisite gilt-bronze figure, depicted seated with one leg down and the other crossed with the foot resting on the other knee, is known as the ‘pensive pose’. The iconography appeared in Buddhist art from Gandhara, but had its roots in the Classical West, where representations of thinkers and mourners in Greece are depicted with head raised, and finger extended to the face. The identity of figures seated in this particular pose has been the subject of debate and has traditionally been recognised as either Prince Siddhartha (later the Buddha Shakyamuni) or the bodhisattva Maitreya. While in the 4th and 5th centuries this pose was indeed used to represent the former, after 550 it was increasingly used in conjunction with Maitreya worship (see the catalogue to the exhibition China: Dawn of a Golden Age, 200-750 AD, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2004, p. 266). A Northern Wei period carving of a princely figure seated in the ‘pensive’ pose was carved in cave 6 at Yungang, illustrated in Mizuno Seiichi and Nagahiro Toshio, Yun-kang, Kyoto, 1951-56, vol. 3, pl. 5, and in Junghee Lee, ‘The Origins and Development of the Pensive Bodhisattva Images of Asia’, Artibus Asiae, vol. 53, no. 3/4, 1993, fig. 12. Often referred to as the Future Buddha, Maitreya is a bodhisattva in the ‘pensive’ pose; in this position he is contemplating his impending final reincarnation and future enlightenment. For further discussion, see the catalogue to the exhibition China: Dawn of a Golden Age, 200-750 AD, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2004, p. 266.
A Tang bronze figure of a pensive bodhisattva in the Shanghai Museum is illustrated in Zhongguo Meishu Quanji. Diaosu bian [The complete series on Chinese art. Sculpture], vol. 4: Sui Tang Diaosu [Sculptures from the Sui and Tang dynasties], Beijing, 1988, pl. 55. For an example in stone, see the Northern Qi white marble triad of a pensive bodhisattva flanked by two attendants, dated to 559, sold in our New York rooms, 12th September 2018, lot 6.
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