Finely engraved with detailed armor and menacing faces, these four figures represent the Four Guardian Kings, who according to Buddhist philosophy, guard the four cardinal points of the world and protect the Buddhist Law (dharma). The four kings, who are believed to have been present at every critical moment in Buddha’s life including his birth and his attainment of nirvana, were originally placed on the four sides of stupas to guard the Buddhist relics inside. They include Virudhaka, ‘He who enlarges the kingdom’, the Guardian of the South; Dhrtarastra, ‘He who maintains the kingdom of the Law’, the Guardian of the East; Vaishravana, ‘He who is knowing’, the Guardian of the North; and Virupaksha, ‘He who observes all things in the kingdom’, the Guardian of the West. Each guardian is depicted as a fierce warrior, with eyes wide open and a muscular body visible through their armor, while their celestial nature is shown by their halos and flowing scarves.
Compare a parcel-gilt and silvered bronze reliquary box, from the Tang/Liao dynasty, engraved to the sides with the Guardian King of the North, depicted in a closely related style with very similar headdresses and leg armors in particular, sold in these rooms, 22nd September 2005, lot 32. See another Tang dynasty reliquary box, decorated in repoussé with engraved details around the exterior with four related Guardian Kings in a more elaborate style, discovered in the underground palace beneath Famen temple, Shaanxi province, published in Famensi digong Tang mimanchaluo zhi yanjiu [Study of Tang mandala from the underground palace of Famen temple], Hong Kong, 1998, pp 407 and 408.
For a Liao dynasty depiction of the Guardian Kings, see a parcel-gilt silver plaque, decorated with the Guardian of the North seated on a pedestal, published in Pierre Uldry, Chinesische Gold und Silber, Zurich, 1994, pl. 262. Stylistically, the Guardian Kings on the present lot can also be compared to a pair of guardians painted on a wood door excavated from a Liao dynasty tomb in Bairin Right Banner, Inner Mongolia, each depicted in a related style standing on a rockwork with their heads backed by a circular halo, exhibited in Qidan wangchao: Neimenggu Liaodai wenwu jinghua [Treasures of the Liao dynasty from Inner Mongolia], National Museum of Chinese History, Beijing, 2002, p. 65; and a small gilt-bronze funerary door, decorated with a standing guardian holding a sword, unearthed at a Liao tomb in Balizuo Banner, Inner Mongolia, exhibited in Empires Beyond the Great Wall. The Heritage of Genghis Khan, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, Los Angeles, 1993, p. 116, fig. 75 (right).