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Lot 2839. A Magnificent And Very Rare Inscribed GiIt-Bronze Figure 0f Avalokitesvara, Ming Dynasty, Xuande Period, Dated To 1435; 78 cm., 30 3/4 in. Estimate 30,000,000—40,000,000 HKD. Lot Sold 33,140,000 HKD (4.248,718 USD) to an Asian Private. Photo Sotheby's

finely cast and seated in rajalilasana, his left hand resting on the lotus pedestal behind and the right arm supported by the raised knee, the serene face with downcast eyes, surmounted with a five-leaf crown, inset with a diminutive figure of Buddha Amitabha to the central leaf, enclosing the tightly curled hair rising to an elaborate high chignon and jewel, the pendulous earlobes with wheel-shaped earrings, wearing a patterned shawl and dhoti, elaborately bordered with chased and engraved lotus, peony and chrysanthemum on a circle-punched ground, the chest bare, wearing an elaborate beaded necklace, bejewelled bangles and armlets, supported by a double lotus pedestal with a dated inscription corresponding to 1435

An Important Xuande Period Gilt-Bronze Guanyin from the Xingsheng Temple, Jiangsu Province

The inscription may be translated as:

On a day in a month of the tenth year of Xuande [AD 1435] the bhiksu Shanmao of Xingsheng Temple, Huating, in reverence to those who truly influence and move the hearts, to all almsgivers and the Buddhist priests who follow the Path, has made this royal (isvara) image so that the Four Mercies may flourish, and is offering it as tribute to the Three Universal Characteristics and Truths; it was commissioned by Huang Fu, so that all mankind may equally achieve the state of the fruition of Buddhahood. 

May those who look up in respect and reverence to this holy manifestation quickly attain Buddhahood!
May those who destory the Bodhisattva be sent to Buddhist hell upon death!

The important inscription identifies the donor of the statue to the Xingsheng Temple as Huang Fu (1363–1440), a high government official serving at the Ming court since the late Hongwu period and mainly under the Yongle and Xuande Emperors, as Minister of Works, Minister of Revenue, and Grand Supervisor of Instruction of the Heir Apparent, amongst other titles, see L. Carrington Goodrich and Chaoying Fang, eds, Dictionary of Ming Biography, 1368-1644, New York and London, 1976, pp. 653-6. As Administrator and Surveillance Commissioner of Annam, Huang was responsible for the administration of Vietnam during the short period it formed part of the Chinese empire. Although this period was marked by continuous uprisings and Annam was lost again in a battle soon after Huang had been recalled to the capital, he himself had been much respected by the Annamese and considered as a very good administrator. Towards the end of his life and at the time this image was cast, he was given a less strenuous post in Nanjing, where a subordinate central government remained after the move of the capital to Beijing.

The Xingsheng Temple, to which this image was dedicated, is located in Songjiang county, Jiangsu province, close to Shanghai, in a region formerly called Huating. The temple was founded in the Five Dynasties period, and its square nine-storied pagoda, which was built in the Song dynasty, is still standing.

Huang Fu's important donation to the temple represents Avalokiteshvara, known by myriad epithets such as The Compassion One, The Lord of the World, Lord that Gazes Down. The Bodhisattva appears in the popular manifestation of Nanhai Guanyin, Avalokiteshvara of the Southern Seas, resting in royal ease in the princely paradise of Potalaka, a mythological mountain abode set on the southern coasts of India. This particular iconography of the Bodhisattva was introduced into China with the translation of the Indian avatamsaka sutra in the fifth century. The cult of Nanhai Guanyin gained great popularity in the Song dynasty (960-1279), and the classic wood temple statues of the period remain so evocative of Chinese sculpture in general with their languorously regal posture. This simple and relatively unadorned Song style continued with little modification through the Yuan. A large eleventh or twelfth century wooden temple sculpture of the Bodhisattva, now in the British Museum, epitomizes the majesty of the Song style, see W. Zwalf, ed., Buddhism: Art and Faith, London, 1985, pp. 204-6, cat. no. 296. A thirteenth or fourteenth century gilt-bronze example, also in the British Museum, continues this classic tradition, see ibid. p. 207, cat. no. 298. However during the Yuan and in the early Ming dynasty the influence of Himalayan sculptural styles appeared, as a consequence of political and religious ties between the imperial court and the dominant Tibetan religious orders. The result in stylistic terms was a more elaborate adornment of the deity with a sumptuous crown, earrings, bracelets, and strings of pearls, as seen in the present example. Furthermore, the Ming style adopts a variant rajalilasana posture with the left leg now laying flat on the pedestal, echoing the classic Indian interpretation of this form of Avalokiteshvara: the Tibetan styles maintained more direct links with the original source of Indian iconography, cf. the posture and adornment of twelfth century Pala Indian bronzes of the bodhisattva, see Ulrich von Schroeder, Indo-Tibetan Bronzes, Hong Kong, 1981, p. 282, pls. 69B.

This outstanding image is one of the largest dated Buddhist gilt bronzes from the Xuande period and provides a rare benchmark for the dating of early Ming sculpture. A Hongwu dynasty standing gilt-bronze Amitabha, dated 1396, now in the British Museum, demonstrates the stylistic transition between the Yuan dynasty and later Ming bronzes, see ibid, p. 208, cat. no. 300. Another gilt-bronze Amitabha, also in the British Museum collections, ibid, p. 209, cat. no. 302, is dated to the third year of Chenghua, 1467, and comparisons between all three sculptures, each firmly dated within a period of some seventy years, are revealing. The Hongwu standing Amitabha is simple and restrained with the cloth of his robe falling in naturalistic folds and undecorated with textile patterns, and showing no influence from concurrent Himalayan styles. Some forty years later the robe edges of the present 1435 Nanhai Guanyin are decorated with classic Ming foliate designs, and an elaborate Himalayan crown style is incorporated. And thirty-two years later the 1467 Chenghua Amitabha is beginning to display the fuller face associated with mid-Ming sculpture, and has accentuated stylisation of the robe with dramatic flourishes in the fall of the cloth from the raised left arm, details not hitherto seen on Buddhist sculpture. Furthermore there is a conspicuous lack of Himalayan influence in the 1467 bronze reflecting the much-reduced political and religious affiliations with the region compared with the earlier Yongle and Xuande reigns. The present 1435 Nanhai Guanyin may be compared with an un-inscribed early Ming gilt-bronze Guanyin from the Worcester R. Warner Collection, now in the Cleveland Museum of Art, both richly adorned and seated in similar posture, see Pratapaditya Pal, ed., On the Path to Void: Buddhist Art of the Tibetan Realm, Mumbai, 1996, p. 156, pl. 11.

Sotheby's. Vestiges from China's Imperial History, 08 Apr 11, Hong Kong