Important Chinese Art

Important Chinese Art

View full screen - View 1 of Lot 294. An extremely rare pair of polychrome limestone figures of bodhisattvas, Tang dynasty | 唐 石灰石雕加彩菩薩立像一對.

Property from the Collection of Luis Virata

An extremely rare pair of polychrome limestone figures of bodhisattvas, Tang dynasty | 唐 石灰石雕加彩菩薩立像一對

Auction Closed

March 23, 06:46 PM GMT


500,000 - 700,000 USD

Lot Details


An extremely rare pair of polychrome limestone figures of bodhisattvas

Tang dynasty

唐 石灰石雕加彩菩薩立像一對


Height 24⅞ in., 63.2 cm; 24½ in., 62 cm

Acquired in Hong Kong, 2001. 

J. J. Lally & Co., New York, 2017. 



These two rare and exceptionally impressive sculptures embody many of the finest qualities of Tang dynasty (618-907) art. The figures are sensitively carved with slender, graceful features. They are remarkably sophisticated in their sculptural quality, their serene and compassionate faces with subtle smiles, voluminous coiffure neatly tied up in a spiral bun, bodies displayed in an elegant swaying pose, exposed torsos adorned with jewelry and scarves, and gracefully draped, thin flowing skirts. This magnificent pair of bodhisattva figures depicts heavenly beings imbued with a sense of human qualities.

From the early years of the Tang dynasty, Buddhism was supported by the Imperial court, which actively sponsored major building projects and encouraged monks to travel abroad and bring back sacred scriptures. During the reigns of Emperor Gaozong (r. 650-83) and Empress Wu Zetian (r. 684-704), many construction projects of temples in the capital and cave temples with Buddhist sculptures, most notably at the Longmen Caves outside Luoyang in Henan province, were commissioned. The monumental cave temples, created by the greatest sculptors of the day, provided an artistic language that dominated sculptural art in China and also inspired the production of free-standing figures and stelae. Buddhist images from the earlier dynasties were usually rather formal. They often appeared imposing but distant, as sculptors originally had concentrated on rendering the solemn spiritual message. However, in the early Tang a naturalistic approach in Buddhist sculpture began to develop, whereby deities appeared to be much more benevolent and approachable. This started the full transformation towards a delightfully beautiful, sensuous naturalism in Buddhist imagery, where the religious message was delivered through a very accessible form of human beauty. Previously often depicted as either male or else genderless, bodhisattvas were now rendered with a distinctive feminine beauty. Following the move towards a more gracious, human form of representation, the present pair is marked by their slender bodies, fleshy features and elegant pose, displaying a sophistication and attention to natural forms characteristic of the 8th century.

Some Longmen bodhisattvas are equally rendered as graceful beings, standing in relaxed poses, with a slight sway to the body and performing naturalistic gestures, in a style similar to that seen on the present figures; see, for example, a related pair of bodhisattvas in the Jinan Cave at Longmen, illustrated in Zhongguo meishu quanji: Diaosu bian / Complete series on Chinese art: Sculpture section, vol. 11, Shanghai, 1988, pls 173 and 174, or from the Leigutai Caves, also known as Dawanwufo Caves, ibid., pl. 183. Compare also two individual figures of bodhisattvas from the Longmen Caves, included in the exhibition Ancient Chinese Sculptural Treasures: Carvings in Stone, Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts, Kaohsiung, 1998, cat. nos 59 and 60. In the first years of the 8th century, Empress Wu commissioned the addition of Qibaotai, the Tower of Seven Jewels, to the temple Guangzhaisi in Chang’an, the capital of the Tang. The temple no longer exists, but some thirty stone stelae carved in high relief are preserved from the interior of the Qibaotai, which are executed in a style related to the present sculptures. They are illustrated and discussed in Yan Juanying, Jinghua shuiyue. Zhongguo gudai meishu kaogu yu fojiao yishu de tantao / Visualizing the Miraculous World, Taipei, 2016, pp 83-112 ; some are also included in Osvald Sirén, Chinese Sculpture from the Fifth to the Fourteenth Century, London, 1925 (reprint Bangkok, 1998), pls 391-397. The stelae are partly now preserved in the Baoqing Temple in Xi’an, partly in the Tokyo National Museum, and two are in the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Unlike most of these stone stelae, the present pair were conceived and carved fully in the round and meant to be free-standing. Such sculptures are prone to breakage, with only a few preserved from this period, and it is extremely rare to find a pair. Compare a similarly unusual pair of limestone figures of bodhisattvas from the early Tang dynasty, also depicting Mahasthamaprapta and Avalokiteshvara, formerly in the collections of Grenville L. Winthrop and James W. and Marilynn Alsdorf, illustrated in Sirén, op.cit., pl. 372, sold at Christie's New York, 13th-14th September 2018, lots 1123 and 1124. 

Buddhism flourished during the Tang dynasty. The years of cultural and political division that accompanied dynastic changes from the fall of the Han (206 BC-AD 220) through the establishment of the Sui (581-618) and Tang dynasties, gradually led to the rise of Pure Land Buddhism. Centered around the devotion of the Buddha Amitabha, or a bodhisattva, this doctrine allowed devotees to be reborn in Sukhavati, the Western Paradise. Consequently, images of Amitabha and of bodhisattvas proliferated in this period. The present two sculptures represent two of the eight great bodhisattvas of Mahayana Buddhism: Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, known as Guanshiyin in Chinese, and Mahasthamaprapta, the bodhisattva of Wisdom, known as Dashizhi. In the imagery of Pure Land Buddhism, which thrived in China in the 8th century, these two bodhisattvas are often presented as a pair and shown standing on either side of Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light, as his divine attendants. Forming a triad known as the 'Three Sages of the West', they are the deities in charge of Sukhavati and together they oversee the Western Paradise.


唐初,朝廷支持佛教,廣建佛寺,鼓勵僧侶西游取經。唐高宗(650至683 年)及武則天(684至704 年)在位期間,於京城修建多間寺廟及石窟,其中以河南洛陽城外的龍門石窟最為著名。龍門石窟由當時造詣最高之藝匠潛心雕造,主導後世中國造像藝術風格,亦對獨立造像及石碑的創作予以啓發。唐初之前,佛像多作抽象風格,力求彰顯佛像威嚴,令人敬畏。唐初佛教造像則漸趨寫實自然,以佛相慈悲為主。自此,佛教造像日漸崇尚寫實之美,發展成熟,美學風格與人像相近,親近信衆,從而廣揚佛法。觀音像過往並無明顯男女相之分,後來發展為女相,形態容貌均顯慈祥善美。本對菩薩造像亦依隨此風格演變,身軀修長,面容豐滿,姿態優


比較龍門石窟菩薩像作例,造型優雅,菩薩站姿泰然,身軀微傾,風格與本品相近;一對龍門極南洞內菩薩,圖載於《中國美術全集 · 雕塑編》,卷11,上海,1988年,圖版173及174,或擂鼓臺(又稱大萬伍佛洞)雕像,出處同上,圖版183。再比較龍門石窟兩尊菩薩像,曾展並錄於《歷代雕塑珍藏——石刻造像篇》,高雄市立美術館,高雄,1998年,編號59及60。八世紀初,武則天於唐都長安修建光宅寺,增建七寶臺。寺院現已不復存在,唯七寶臺內保存三十多尊浮雕石佛龕傳世,風格與本品相近,圖片及相關討論可參考顏娟瑛,《鏡花水月 : 中國古代美術考古與佛教藝術的探討》,台北,2016年,頁83至112;當中數例,又收錄於喜龍仁,《Chinese Sculpture from the Fifth to the Fourteenth Century》,倫敦,1925年(再版,曼谷,1998年),圖版391至397。此組像現今部分保存在西安寶慶寺,也有入藏東京國立博物館之例,另有兩尊,現藏華盛頓弗利爾美術館。


薩像,曾先後所屬溫索浦 、詹姆斯及玛丽莲•阿尔斯多夫伉儷收藏,載於喜龍仁,出處同上,圖版372,後售於紐約佳士得2018年9月13至14日,編號1123及1124。