A Magnificent And Exceptionally Large Gilt Bronze Figure of Shakyamuni Buddha, Ming Dynasty, l5th-l6th Century. Photo Sotheby's
of superlative casting and finish, the high-backed near-life-sized figure emanating power and spiritual energy in its naturalistic proportions, the massive figure cast seated in dhyanasana on a waisted pedestal encircled by two tiers of elaborate lotus lappets between bands of pearlised bosses, the left hand in dhyanamudra, the mudra of meditation, and the right hand bent with palm down before the right knee in bhumisparsamudra, the 'earth-witnessing' gesture, his torso draped in a loose robe, falling across one arm and around the shoulders while leaving the chest bare, the robes skilfully chased and incised with bold lotus-scroll bands and detailed borders of composite flowers at the hem, cascading onto the base in crisp folds, some turning over to reveal the finely punched diaper with chevron border of the interior lining, the serene face with a hollowed urna above downcast eyes and a bow-shaped mouth, the flanking ears with pendulous lobes pierced with vertical slots, the tightly curled hair depicted through an array of small bossed whorls piling high upon a domed ushnisha below a spherical cintamani 'jewel' finial, brilliantly gilded overall except for the hair, which bears traces of blue pigment, the urna later inset with ruby stud, pedestal stand; 94 cm., 37 in. Estimate 2,500,000—3,000,000 HKD. Lot Sold 20,820,000 HKD (2,669.231 USD) to an Asian Private
PROVENANCE: Sotheby's Hong Kong, 15th May 1990, lot 358.
Collection of an Important Private Trust, Hong Kong.
Sotheby's Hong Kong, 29th October 2000, lot 19.
LITERATURE AND REFERENCES: Sotheby's. Thirty Years in Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 2003, pl. 429, pp. 360-361.
NOTE: The present figure remains among the largest extant gilt-bronze seated Buddha images cast during the Ming dynasty, and notwithstanding the lack of a reign mark, represents a major commission and technical accomplishment that could only have been instigated and sponsored by Imperial patronage, most likely for a significant temple in the Tibetan monastic tradition within China.
By contrast, within Tibet, monumental Buddha images were created not in bronze but in alloys of high copper content, and not through a single 'pour' as with this figure, but through assembling component parts, which were frequently constructed through repoussé techniques. Larger domestic Chinese bronze figures are known, but mainly without gilding, and in the non-imperial or domestic style such as the famous crowned Buddha in the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, and several others sited in the open air in the Okura Shokukan, Tokyo, and a pair of the Shakyamuni Buddha and the Amitabha Buddha in the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden, Mount Desert Island, Maine, which now display characteristic greenish bronze patina instead. One of the Rockefeller bronzes, with hands in the meditation mudra, was recently published in A Passion for Asia: The Rockefeller Legacy, Asia Society, New York, 2006, pp. 108-109, while the second Rockefeller bronze, with hands in similar earth-witnessing mudra is illustrated p. 85.
This iconographic form in which the historical Buddha is seated with his right hand in the earth-touching position, bhumisparsa mudra, recalls a momentous episode from his spiritual biography in which he triumphs over Mara just prior to his enlightenment. Having vowed to remain in meditation until he penetrated the mystery of existence, Shakyamuni was visited by Mara, a demon associated with the veils and distractions of mundane existence. The Buddha remained unmoved by all the pleasant and unpleasant distractions with which Mara sought to deflect him from his goal. According to some traditional accounts, Mara's final assault consisted of an attempt to undermine the bodhisattva's sense of worthiness by questioning Shakyamuni's entitlement to seek the lofty goal of spiritual enlightenment and the consequent freedom from rebirth. Aided by spirits who reminded him of the countless compassionate efforts he had made on behalf of sentient beings throughout his numerous animal and human incarnations, Shakyamuni recognised that it was his destiny to be poised on the threshold of enlightenment. In response to Mara's query therefore, Shakyamuni moved his right hand from the meditation position in his lap and touched the ground, stating, "the earth is my witness." This act of unwavering resolve caused Mara and his army of demons and temptresses to disperse, leaving Shakyamuni to experience his Great Enlightenment. The episode took place at the Adamantine Throne, vajrasana, beneath a bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya, in eastern India, a location said to have been especially empowered to expedite the Buddha's enlightenment. It is this precise instance of triumph that the present gilt-bronze image embodies.
When smaller Buddha images with this mudra appear in groups of five, as Tathagata Buddhas representing various spiritual aspects or principles rather than personages, it would then represent Aksobhya, who resides in the Eastern Paradise, in the direction of the rising sun, embodying the subjugation of passions and inner awakening. An image of the present size is, however, unlikely to have belonged to a set of five; it may rather be related to contemporary Tibetan thangkas showing a similarly large central image of Shakyamuni in 'earth-witnessing' gesture. As such, the present figure possesses the same triumphant aura and stylized formal composition as a thangka from Western Tibet, formerly in the Nasli and Alice Heeramaneck collection, now in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, included in the exhibition, Wisdom & Compassion: The Sacred Art of Tibet, The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, 1991, cat.no. 4.
The treatment of the robes in both the thangka and the present figure, with hooded right shoulder and flat folds under a tightly bound waist, differs significantly from the two other extant large Buddhas of closely related size. Both are of Yongle mark and period, with their original stepped bases and pierced mandorlas. One is in the British Museum, illustrated in Zwalf, Buddhism: Art and Faith, London, 1985, cat.no. 305 and color frontispiece; and the other figure was sold Hotel Drouot, Paris, 26th June 1994, lot 284, and again sold from the Speelman Collection, in these rooms, 7th October, 2006, lot 808 which trumped the world record previously held by the present image to a new level of HK$116.6 million (US$15.1 million). Nonetheless, neither of those two figures closely match the present figure in proportion and monumentality.
Sotheby's. Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art, 08 Apr 11, Hong Kong www.sothebys.com