08 juin 2018

A rare and important gilt-bronze figure of Buddha Shakyamuni, Tibet, Early 15th century







Lot 212. A rare and important gilt-bronze figure of Buddha Shakyamuni, Tibet, Early 15th century. Hauteur: 46,5 cm. (18 ¼ in.). Estimate EUR 300,000 - EUR 500,000 (USD 352,060 - USD 586,766)Price realised EUR 967,500. © Christie's Images Ltd 2018.

Il est représenté assis en vajrasana sur un socle lotiforme rehaussé d'un vajra posé devant lui. Sa main droite est en bhumisparshamudra, sa main gauche repose sur sa cuisse. Il est vêtu de robes monastiques. Son visage est serein et rehaussé de détails peints et de traces de dorure à froid. Son front est rehaussé de l'urna. Ses cheveux et sonushnisha sont bouclés et rehaussés de bleu ; scellée.

ProvenanceBettini collection, France, collected before 1980.
French private collection, Paris, 2001-2012, acquired from Galerie Jacques Barrère, Paris, 2001.
Private collection, Singapore, 2012-2017.

ExhibitedGalerie Jacques Barrère, Paris, Images Bouddhiques en Bronze Doré, 2001.

NoteThis masterwork represents the historical Buddha on the threshold of enlightenment. He is seated in the vajrasana posture recalling the moment when he attained liberation under the bodhi tree in Bodhgaya. His right hand is showing the bhumisparshamudra or earth-touching gesture. He is calling upon the earth to bear witness to the truth of his teachings and his victory over Mara, the god of desire, who had tried to distract him. This particular iconographic form is the most often depicted in Buddhism as it captures the ultimate moment in which Shakyamuni triumphed over his final obstacle to spiritual liberation. He is depicted as mainly a human person. His robes are indicated with just some linear designs, the navel and nipples prominent. Only the elongated earlobes and cranial bump announce his superhuman nature.

Many comparable iconographic examples have been created over the centuries though just a small group shows similar stylistic details like short neck, full and round shoulders and the hem of the robe draped over the left shoulder in the shape of a swallow’s tail. These particular examples were not just to commemorate the most important event during the life of Buddha Shakyamuni and thus as well for its followers but most likely to reproduce the main image in the Mahabodhi temple of Bodhgaya, the mother of all icons. Indeed it is well known that devotees held certain sacred images in such a reverence that these were faithfully copied over the centuries. 

The smooth body surface was once cold-gilded of which remnants are still traceable on his face. This is in accordance with Indian iconographic prescriptions that mentioned that the skin of the Buddha should be of a golden hue.  

A stylistic comparable gilt-bronze figure of Buddha Sakyamuni, though inlaid with silver, was sold at Christie’s Hong Kong on 31 May 2017, lot 2804 (fig. 1). Additional, this sacred image has short cylindrical pins below the knees while our figure shows just one pin to secure it to the base. The Hong Kong example was lacking the separately-cast double-lotus base, which still exists with the Paris figure. Apart from these differences both bronzes are comparable in size, iconometric proportions and casting technique. The present Paris and the Hong Kong examples share the same pinched waist, muscular upper body and serene expression that reveal the influence of Nepalese sculptural style.  






fig. 1. A highly important and very rare malla-style gilt-bronze and silver-inlaid seated figure of Buddha Shakyamuni, Tibet, 13th-14th century; 15¾ in. (40 cm.) high. Sold for 50,940,000 HKD at Christie’s Hong Kong, 31 May 2017, lot 2804© Christie's Images Ltd 2017.

The majestic deity is superbly cast seated in dhyanasana with his hands in bhumisparsa mudra, wearing an intricately executed patchwork robe over his left shoulder with silver-inlaid beaded rims, the robe gathered in cascading folds at the shoulder and at his ankles, his rounded face with downcast eyes, bow-shaped mouth flanked by long pendulous ear lobes, his hair arranged in tight curls rising to a domed ushnisha, richly gilt overall, the figure retains the original consecrated materials sealed with a gilt base plate incised with a lotus flowerhead. 

Provenance: Benny Rustenburg, Amsterdam, acquired prior to 1980
Acquired from above in 1989.

By Luo Wenhua

The figure of Shakyamuni is one of the most widely represented ubjects in Buddhist art. Shakyamuni with his hand in bhumisparsha mudra, calling the earth to witness, is the most popular form of Buddha in East India, Nepal and Central Tibet. This is because Bodh Gaya in Bihar of East India is where the historical Buddha attained enlightenment. The stone platform on which he entered nirvana, the bodhi tree under which he sat, and the Mahabodhi Pagoda are all objects of veneration for Buddhists around the world. The iconography inside the pagoda is the same Buddha in bhumisparsha mudra. Even as time passes and after countless renovations and rebuilding, this iconography still stands as one of the most sacred forms of Buddha. Pilgrimage became a lasting tradition soon after Buddha’s passing, and this includes prostration in front of sacred objects. This resulted in religious practitioners working closely with artists in the creation of these objects. Since Bihar is close to Nepal and Central Tibet, this form of Buddha became the de facto choice in the representation of Buddha.  

The current Buddha is made of gilt bronze. The gilding is very thick and has a deep tone, in contrast to the thin and bright gilding of Nepalese examples. The hair of the Buddha is a collection of dense high-relief spirals, and painted blue by mixing ground lapis lazuli with animal glue, in keeping with the canonical description of Buddha where it is noted that he has ‘purplish blue curled hair’. He has a gilt protrusion on top of his head, the ushnisha, which is prominently represented here. He has a very broad, curved forehead, on which a turquoise urna can be seen. His two eyebrows are lightly indicated with curved lines, above downcast eyes in meditation. The nose is thin and straight, and the lips gently smiling. He has a prominent mental point, elongated earlobes, and three lines around his neck – these are all prescribed features of the Buddha. The Nepalese influence is most noticeable on the face of the current figure: the thin curved eyebrows, broad forehead, narrow chin, and pea-pod shaped eyes combine to form the gentle countenance that exudes the elegance and ease of a young aristocrat. However, the turquoise urna and the prominent mental point are Tibetan characteristics that betray its origin.  

He has broad shoulders and a robust chest, with raised pectoral muscles. This is a new style adopted by Nepalese artists and characteristic of Tibetan Buddhist iconography. This new style can be seen on the thangka of Phags-pa in the Tibet Museum, and the murals of the Buddha of Five Directions in the Kangyur Lhakang in Shalu Monastery. These are all dated to the first half of the 14th century, and can be a benchmark in the dating of the current figure.  

The Buddha is wearing a patchwork robe, and the seams between the fabric are indicated with beading, some of which is decorated with inlaid silver that is slightly proud of the surface. This very unusual feature shows the creativity of the craftsman in creating a new design. Both the back and the front are beautifully finished, a Tibetan characteristic in contrast with the Nepalese style, where the backs of figures are often left rough. The patchwork robe is a feature of Han-Chinese Buddhism that is not used in Tibet, where single-cloth robes are prevalent. This type of robe came to Tibet through the cultural exchanges between Tibet and the courts of the Song and Yuan dynasties. Although Tibetan monks do not wear patchwork robes, they frequently appear on Buddhist figures of this period. 

The current figure is sealed with a base plate which is simply decorated with an eight-petalled lotus, instead of the viśvavajra or the yin-yang symbols frequently seen in the later periods. The eightpetalled lotus is clearly asymmetrical, a type frequently appears on 14th century murals in Shalu Monastery, and further proof of the dating of this figure. From X-ray images, there are small sutra scrolls in the cavity of the figure, a unique consecration method only seen in Tibet. 

The base of the current figure was cast separately to facilitate its manufacture. However, this type of bases are often lost, such is the case here.  

To conclude, this is a Tibetan bronze figure that has been heavily influenced by Nepalese style. It is in very good condition, and its casting shows a high degree of sophistication and refinement, especially with its silver-inlay technique, a uniquely Tibetan tradition. This is an important masterpiece from early 14th century Tibet.

Note: While almost the entire figure is fire gilt, in which mercury is used to adhere gold to the bronze surface beneath, the beaded hems of the robes on the front of the figure are picked out in silver inlay. Although mixed silver and gilt decorated figures were often found in the earlier bronze casting centres of North India, including during the Pala period, they are incredibly rare for this early period of Tibetan art. Such a technique requires masterful expertise, and this example embodies the virtuosity of the Tibetan bronze casters of the 14th century.

Compare the present figure with a related but smaller figure, originally in the Pan-Asian Collection and personal collection of Robert Hatfield Ellsworth and now in a private collection (fig. 1). The Ellsworth figure, despite depicting a crowned Buddha, is remarkably similar in terms of sculptural decoration and style. The figure is dressed in a patchwork robe, with raised beaded hems in both silver and gold, and with an incised leaf pattern similar to that of the present example. A Chinese woodblock print from the 13th/14th century shows that this iconography of Buddha with patchwork robe was a very popular subject at the time and was already well known in China (fig. 2). While the Ellsworth figure is in silver, the exposed skin and face of the figure was originally covered in cold gold, meaning the original effect would have been one of shimmering contrast between the silver and gold areas. The present figure magnifies that contrasting effect by eschewing the cold gold for luminous fire gilding. Apart from the Ellsworth example, few other works of Himalayan sculpture that employ both gold and silver are known.


fig. 1. Former collection of Robert Ellsworth.


fig. 2. Woodblock print circa. 1300.

These stylistic elements can be found as well on another important silver-inlaid gilt-bronze Buddha figure sold recently at Christie’s New York, 21 March 2018, lot 306 (fig. 2.). They also have in common an impressive size and a double lotus base separately cast.

A Large and Important Silver-Inlaid Gilt Bronze Figure of Buddha Shakyamuni, Tibet, circa 1400

A Large and Important Silver-Inlaid Gilt Bronze Figure of Buddha Shakyamuni, Tibet, circa 1400; 16 1/8 in. (40.8 cm.) high. Sold for 3,612,500 USD at Christie’s New York, 21 March 2018, lot 306. © Christie's Images Ltd 2017.

Cf. my post: Christie's announces a series of auctions, viewings, and events during Asia Week New York

This fifteenth century style of the Paris Buddha can also be compared to some other examples sold at Christie’s New York,  21 March 2007, lot 317 and 21 September 2007, lot 137. Another stylistic comparable example was sold through Sotheby’s New York, 22 March 2018, lot 1036.

A large gilt bronze figure of Buddha Tibet, 15th century

A large gilt bronze figure of Buddha, Tibet, 15th century; 18¾ in. (47.5 cm.) high. Sold for 144,000 USD at Christie’s New York, 21 March 2007, lot 317. © Christie's Images Ltd 2017.

Very finely cast seated on a lotus throne with hands in bhumisparsa mudra, clad in a diaphanous robe with incised borders, lotus flowers incised into the palms of the hand and soles of the feet, the face with heavy-lidded eyes and a raised urna flanked by pendulous lobes, the hair in tightly coiled curls with a high ushnisha topped by a gilt finial, with remains of polychromy in the hair and lips, the base sealed.


A large gilt bronze figure of Buddha Tibet, 15th century

A large gilt bronze figure of Buddha, Tibet, 15th Century; 15 in. (38 cm.) high. Sold for 361,000 USD at Christie’s New York, 21 September 2007, lot 137. © Christie's Images Ltd 2017.

Seated in dhyanasana and bhumisparsa mudra on a double-lotus base, clad in a diaphanous sanghati draped over the left shoulder with beaded hems, the face with downcast eyes and serene expression surmounted by an ushnisha, richly gilt overall.

Provenance: Acquired between 1985-1995 

Note: The modeling of this bronze is particularly fine, with elegant proportions and finely detailed lotus petals on the base. 

A fine gilt-bronze figure of Buddha Shakyamuni on a lion throne, Tibet, 14th Century





A fine gilt-bronze figure of Buddha Shakyamuni on a lion throne, Tibet, 14th Century. Height: 12  3/4  in. (32.5 cm). Sold for 975,000 USD at Sotheby’s New York, 22 March 2018, lot 1036. © Christie's Images Ltd 2017.

the Buddha wearing a diaphanous monk’s robe over the left shoulder, with hands in dharmachakra mudra, seated in vajraparyankasana on a lotus pedestal, a throne beneath draped with an altar cloth decorated with inset semi-precious stones, crouching lions at either end, a scrolling vine and floral motif at centre and continuing at the sides and to the rear, with an undecorated panel at the back with the remains of a securing tang.

Himalayan Art Resources item no. 13474.

Provenance: Yan Wing Arts Co., Hong Kong, 1991-1995.

Note: This radiant image in gem-set gilt copper depicts the Buddha Shakyamuni with his hands in the gesture of turning the Buddhist Wheel of Law and expounding the dharma. The lions in the throne are a symbol of the Buddha’s Shakya clan, and an ancient Indian emblem of royalty and power. Scrolling vine around the base represents the branches and tendrils of the lotus on which the Buddha is seated, the flower symbolising purity and renunciation.

The sculpture epitomises the qualities of Newar master artists working for Tibetan patrons in the fourteenth century. Nepalese sculptural traditions are seen in the simple yet sensuously modeled, and perfectly proportioned figure of Buddha, the subtle colour of the expertly inset gem decoration on the throne cloth below and the rich hue of the mercury gilding. The pedestal design reflects Tibetan preference for sculptural embellishment in the exuberance of the scrolling vine motif, compare a central Tibetan seated gem-set gilt copper alloy figure of Manjushri with scrolling vine throne, see Pratapaditya Pal, Art of the Himalayas, New York, 1991, p. 125, cat. no. 65, where Pal notes that such floral design along the bottom of the lotus base is commonly seen on Tibetan painting of the period but almost never on Nepalese bronzes.

The rectangular undecorated panel at the back of the throne indicates how the statue was placed in a larger temple setting: where now there is a hole, a sturdy tang once protruded which would have been used to locate and secure the statue in its designated position, cf. the statues of Densatil that are fixed in position in this manner, see Olaf Czaja and Adriana Proser, eds, Golden Visions of Densatil, New York, 2014, p. 46-7.

Compare the scrolling vine throne, the lotus petal design, the subtle inset jewellery and the clean and elegant sculptural line of a fourteenth century gilt copper alloy Amoghasiddhi in the Berti Aschmann Collection at the Museum Rietberg, that was included in the 2014 exhibition “Golden Visions of Densatil: A Tibetan Buddhist Monastery” at Asia Society Museum, ibid.,cat. no. 31: compare also the scrolling vine motif on the lotus pedestals of two Vajravarahi gilt bronzes from Densatil, ibid., cat. nos. 42-3. Compare also a fourteenth century gilt copper alloy Vajrasattva in the Drigung Thil monastery collection, with similar scrolling vine motif on the pedestal and subtle inset jewellery, see Ulrich von Schroeder, Buddhist Sculptures in Tibet, Hong Kong, 2001, Vol. II, p. 1041, pl. 260.

Furthermore the elegant hem, drape and twist of the Buddha’s monastic robe along his left upper arm while exposing his right shoulder can be found with fourteenth to fifteenth century bronzes of this Newari school in Tibet. See for instance U. von Schroeder, ‘Buddhist Sculptures in Tibet’, Visual Dharma Publications, 2001, vol. II, p. 962 and 963, figures 231A and 231C. The style of the separate created lotus pedestal with a band of pearls running above and below the full and broad lotus petals cast with an intricate and rather complex floral motif at the tips confirms the attribution.

This strong Nepalese influence on all discussed bronzes was prevalent throughout much of the Himalayas during the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries. It was particularly popular in the central regions of Tibet, from which the present figure originates. The Newaris, the traditional inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley, were the master bronze casters of the period, and their services were patronized far and wide, including at the imperial workshops of the Yuan dynasty in Beijing. While the present figure exudes characteristics of Nepalese sculpture, the gilding and the tone of the bronze beneath identify this as a masterpiece made in Tibet. 

Christie's. Art d'Asie, Paris, 13 June 2018 - SALE 16031

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