Early Buddhist Sculpture
See also : Buddhism India Northern Song Ancient sculpture
Chronology : 1000-1300
Schist Group from Gandhara
2020 SOLD for $ 6.6M by Christie's
Around the 1st century CE, Buddhism defined the 32 characteristics of the figurative representation of Buddha to provide the faithful with visual elements to facilitate interpretation. The Gandhara sculptors gradually abandoned Greek figures to illustrate in schist the scenes from the life of Buddha. An ascetic Buddha from the fasting episode was sold for $ 4.45M by Christie's on March 22, 2011.
A 62 x 59 cm gray schist stele surfaced in 1973. Under a lush Buddha tree, five deities are housed with scales varying according to their position in the Buddhist canon. The central figure is the Shakyamuni Buddha in the preaching period, seated on lotus petals. He is flanked by the bodhisattvas Avalokiteshvara and Maitreya. Avalokiteshvara is recognizable by the tiny figure of Buddha coiled in his crown. Behind them, the two smaller worshipers are Brahma and Indra.
All these figures have been carved in deep relief in the stele. The very skilful composition provides the perfect illusion of a sculpture in the round. In the Greek style, the faces are realistic and the attitudes are flexible.
This stele bears an inscription. It is dated to the 5th day of the month of Phalguna in the year 5 from a period that has not been identified, between the end of the 1st century and the 5th century CE. The donor, named Buddhananda, is learned in the three baskets (pitakas), covering all the sacred texts at that time, and he dedicates the work to his parents.
The sculpture is in excellent condition, apart from the fact that three of the bodhisattvas' four forearms carrying offerings are missing. It was sold for $ 6.6M by Christie's on September 23, 2020, lot 609.
#AuctionUpdate Sold to applause after competitive bidding, a rare and magnificent gray Schist Relief Triad of Buddha Shakyamuni with Bodhisattvas realized $6,630,000 -- more than 8x over its high estimate. https://t.co/ui1Ion9dcd pic.twitter.com/nxEKQeqVPI— Christie's (@ChristiesInc) September 23, 2020
526 Buddhist Triad of the Northern Wei
2017 SOLD for $ 5.8M by Christie's
Xuanwu's death in 515 CE opens a long period of civil wars in which the dominant personality is his widow the Empress Dowager Hu. Even more zealous than Xuanwu, Hu had gigantic Buddhist shrines built around the capital Luoyang. These temples are populated with countless altar figures in gilded bronze or in stone, for which an unprecedented perfection is requested. Many of them bear the date of their consecration.
Buddha is the main character, often flanked by two smaller bodhisattvas. The group in the round is positioned in front of a mandorla centered with a radiant halo. The stone carving technique is inspired by the Gandhara schists but the figurative details are different with a great care paid to the amplitude of the long robes.
A remarkably preserved 61 cm high marble triad was sold for $ 5.8M by Christie's on March 15, 2017 from a lower estimate of $ 600K, lot 529 in the auction of the Fujita Museum collection.
This piece is dated to the second year of Xiaochang, the fourth era of the child emperor Xiaoming, corresponding to 526 CE. The three characters have half-closed eyes and a soothing smile. Buddha has one hand raised and the other lowered, in the blessing gesture of abhayamudra and varadamudra. In front of each of the bodhisattvas is a seated roaring lion. The top of the mandorla is missing.
Tang Buddha Head
2013 SOLD for HK$ 40.4M by Sotheby's
To embody the ten virtues on the face of Buddha, a new technique identified as "dry lacquer" was developed in the Tang period. The goal was to obtain a perfect carving on a piece sufficiently light to be easily moved during the processions.
A mandrel of wood is plated with clay before being covered with the layers of lacquer-imbued hemp wherein the carving is performed. The artist has all the necessary comfort to improve his work until the desired effect is achieved. Then, wood and clay are removed.
The dry lacquer made in Tang period is extremely rare. Of course, many of these fragile pieces made to be handled have been broken over the centuries. They are so rare that we may assume that the Buddha figures using this technique were performed by a single workshop, perhaps unrelated to the imperial court.
A serene Buddha was sold for HK $ 40.4M from a lower estimate of HK $ 20M by Sotheby's on October 8, 2013. The larger than life size, 46 cm high, is accentuating the majestic look. Its symbolic expression of the perfection of virtues through facial features is a masterpiece of the art of portraiture.
early Song pair of Bodhisattvas
2019 SOLD for HK$ 45M by Christie's
The two bodhisattvas appear as identically dressed twins. They nevertheless have separate roles. Avalokiteshvara brings the infinite compassion and Mahasthamaprapta the power of wisdom. The main difference is the ornamentation of the frontal crown, a figure of Amitabha for Avalokiteshvara and the urn of wisdom for Mahasthamaprapta. In China they are respectively named Guanyin and Dashizhi.
Carved in the early Tang dynasty, a pair of limestone bodhisattvas 67 cm high was separated by Christie's on September 13, 2018, fetching $ 3.25M and $ 2M.
Buddhism is persecuted in China from the reign of the Wuzong emperor of the Tang dynasty. The period of the five short-lived dynasties that follow each other from 907 to 960 CE after the fall of the Tang remains for Buddhism a period of weakness before its renewal under the Song. The altar figures are now made of wood, cheaper than bronze or stone. Polychromy is still applied.
On May 29, 2019, Christie's sold for HK $ 45M a pair of wooden bodhisattvas, lot 2713. They are standing in an identical attitude in mirror inversion, for flanking an Amitabha that has disappeared. They are 145 cm high without including their modern stands. Traces of pigments have been preserved. Please watch the video where the sequences alternate with a monumental Qing Buddha.
Some details including the fishnet pattern of the necklace are typical of the early Song. A departure from the Buddhist canon during the dark period has lengthened the legs and slightly reduced heads and necks.
The arrival of Buddhism in China generated important transformations of this bodhisattva who took the name Guanyin. After the Tang dynasty, Guanyin finally lost his mustache, became an androgynous figure and was revered as a female deity.
Under the Song, Buddhism is not dominant. It is contested by the Confucians and competes with Taoism. At this time of strong political power, the Chinese are wary against this foreign religion imported from India.
The large wooden statues maintain very marked Hindu features in opposition to Chinese traditions, such as the abundance of carved jewelry, the robe revealing the shape of the body, and the high bun. The Liao and the Jin, competitors to the Song, maintained a similar iconography.
To fully exercise her vocation, Guanyin must be accessible. The Chinese located her personal paradise where she could be seen in meditation by the lucky ones. This drift no longer meets the Sanskrit canon but generates another one in which 33 main attitudes are described. The statues of the temples simulate the accessibility of Guanyin in her paradise.
The Shuiyue Guanyin in meditation (Guanyin on the reflection of the Moon in Water) is venerated since the transition period between the Tang and Song dynasties. It is indeed a symbol of the basic role of Guanyin of linking earth and sky.
Guanyin is serene and smiling in a posture of royal ease. She sits flexibly on a rock, her body very slightly leaning backwards, one leg bent up and the other resting or hanging. The left hand is placed on the rock and the right forearm on the bent knee. The lotus in the other hand is generally lost. The most appealing is the figure with the pendant leg, sitting on the edge of a table or of a plinth.
These statues were assembled from pieces of wood and covered by a brightly painted stucco. Their sizes vary according to the altar for which they are intended. The Nelson Atkins Museum owns a 2.40 m high specimen announced as Liao or Jin, and the British Museum a 1.70 m high specimen announced as Song or Jin.
2021 SOLD for HK$ 46M by Sotheby's
It is 137 cm high for the figure, 178 cm overall including its stucco plinth. It has traces of original pigments, without gilding.
A gilt and polychrome Guanyin 131 cm high with the hanging leg was sold for € 5.2M by Christie's on December 14, 2016 from a lower estimate of € 200K, lot 27.
A Guanyin in the same position 102 cm high, announced as Song, was sold for € 2.47M by Leclère on December 16, 2017.
13th century CE Northern China
2012 SOLD for € 9M by Christie's
The carving looks deeper than for earlier examples for a more authoritative expression typical ot the later phase of this iconography around 800 years ago.
Its surface had been smoothened with remains of gesso and coated papier-mâché, finally painted and gilded, of which traces are still adhering.
2016 SOLD for € 13.6M by Christie's
In this period, Buddhist iconography is inspired by Tang figures. Gradually, the return of apocalyptic predictions brings a need to protect the knowledge and strengthens the worship of Maitreya.
Many figures are in painted wood or in clay. Gilded bronze is very rare and reserved for pieces of the utmost luxury. A 21 cm high deity from the beginning of this period, who may be Avalokitesvara or Maitreya, was sold for $ 2.5M by Christie's on March 19, 2008.
A Vairocana Buddha 24 cm high in gilded solid bronze was sold for € 13.6M by Christie's on December 14, 2016, lot 53. This piece, made in the 11th century CE, bears an administrative Liao inscription, unfortunately undated, which attests to its importance.
This figure has some exceptional characteristics. Vairocana is the primordial Buddha. His high tiara is centered with an image of Buddha and integrates into the crown the five cosmic Buddhas, the Tathagatas. His fists are joined in the gesture of knowledge. He is seated on a lotus whose stylized leaves are curiously overflowing. The figuration of jewelry and drapery is luxurious.
Dali Acuoye Guanyin
2022 SOLD for HK$ 49M by Sotheby's
At that time Buddhism was widespread throughout the south and south-east of the continent. Dali occupied an interesting geographical position north of Burma, in the current Chinese province of Yunnan, not so far from India and Tibet.
The Acuoye Guanyin is the tutelary figure protecting the Dali kingdom and its local Duan dynasty, according to a prophecy made by a monk in 899 CE, four decades before the first creation of the kingdom.
Sculptures followed for devotion. One of them kept by the San Diego museum is dated to the mid 12th century CE by a reference to the then Dali ruler.
The Acuoye Guanyin is most often a standing figure. A 46 cm high gilt bronze was sold for $ 1.94M by Christie's on March 20, 2019, lot 813.
At that time the Guanyin of the Song is a full female metamorphosis of the male Sanskrit Avalokiteshvara. Dali does not go so far : their local Guanyin is sometimes androgynous with an elongated male body and a serene female face.
The seated Acuoye Guanyin figures are rarer. A 38 cm high gilt bronze was sold for HK $ 49M from a lower estimate of HK $ 15M by Sotheby's on October 8, 2022, lot 10. The deity is seated on a wood stand with one leg pendant. An image of Amitabha is embedded in the crown.
2017 SOLD for $ 24.7M by Christie's
Three religions cohabitated : Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. They shared a same preoccupation of regulating the communication between the divine and the mortal. In Buddhism this function is assured by the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara.
On March 14, 2017, Christie's sold as lot 233 for $ 24.7M a statue realized in the later phase of the Pala period around 900 years ago.
The young man sits on a thick lotus, one leg bent and the other hanging. This figure is carved in a black stone similar to a schist which was widely used in the Pala steles and whose hardness enables a great sharpness of sculpture.
He necessarily has all the qualities. The spectacular dynamism of the attitude appeals to dialogue with the faithful. He is a prince elegantly dressed with a profusion of pectoral jewels chiseled in the stone but he also is an ascetic recognizable by his braided hair. His belonging to Buddhism is identified by Amitabha hidden in a fold of the tiara : he is altogether Avalokiteshvara, the all-seeing lord, and Lokanatha, the savior of the world.
The character is life-size in this 148 cm high statue. Such characteristics unusual in Buddhist art suggests that it was the main devotional figure in a temple specially dedicated to Avalokiteshvara.
It was from 1922 an important piece in the collection of Indian art of the Boston Museum before being de-accessionned in 1935 for a trade with another statue of the same culture. The arms and nose were missing. The nose was later rebuilt.
1193 Kamakura Buddha
2008 SOLD for $ 14.4M by Christie's
The top artists of this transition are Kokei and his son Unkei, who are from Nara and work for the main Japanese temples. Unkei began his career before 1176 as an apprentice to his father, whom he succeeded around 1195 as the schoolhead of the Kei family.
Their figures are made of wood, assembling many elementary parts with joinery techniques. Unkei departs from the Buddhist canon by making male figures of great expressive power. He also innovates by inserting crystals in the eyes. His statuettes are hollow to contain relics, often including a wooden plaque that identifies the artist and the date.
In 2000, in an antique shop somewhere in the Japanese countryside, a collector is astonished by a wooden figure 66 cm high, which he manages to buy. The piece does not have the weight of solid wood. It is gold lacquered with pigment conservation, and the jewelry ornaments are in hammered metal. It was probably taken out of a temple during the promotion of Shinto in the Meiji period.
Three years later, the curator of sculptures at the National Museum of Tokyo confirms that this piece perfectly matches Unkei's style. Because of its fairly large size, experts consider that it can correspond to a work by Unkei made in 1193 for a funeral memorial.
The figure was perfectly sealed and has not been disassembled. By X-ray inspection, three relics are identified in its cavity : the plaque, which could not be read, a five-stage crystal pagoda symbolizing the material elements, and a crystal ball.
It matches the iconography of Dainichi Nyorai who can be indifferently considered as a Buddha or a Bodhisattva. The gesture of two closed fists one above the other and joined by the index finger of the lower hand symbolizes the knowledge.
This Japanese Buddha was sold for $ 14.4M by Christie's on March 18, 2008, lot 200.