Lot 9. A limestone relief fragment of Vimalakirti, Northern Wei dynasty (386-534). Height 13 3/4 in., 38 cm. Estimate: 120,000 — 150,000 USD. Lot sold 250,000 .© Sotheby's.
the wise layman depicted smiling, in a recumbent seated position on a platform bed, the raised hand holding a deer-tailed fan, wearing a high Phrygian cap and layers of robes, the lowered hand resting on the lap and the feet carved in relief with naturalistic contour and perspective, supported and mounted on a wood stand (2).
Provenance: Collection of Stephen Junkunc, III (d. 1978).
Note: The present seated figure, Vimalakirti, also known as Wei Mo Jie, is the central figure of the Vimalakirti Sutra, a popular Mahayana Buddhist scripture of remarkable literary quality and with highly abstruse content. It primarily teaches the concept of 'nondualism', meaning to reach the realm of absoluteness by transcending the relative dualism in life. Not only a brilliant debater, as well as an upāsaka, a wise and faithful lay devotee to the Gautama Buddha, Vimalakirti demonstrated outstanding wisdom and deep enlightenment through his debates with a host of disciples and bodhisattvas, which ultimately charmed the cultivated Chinese aristocratic literati. The sutra consequently received growing favor, resulting in the emergence of an artistic repertory of Vimalakirti in the form of paintings, wall murals and stone sculptures. He was often shown leaning on one side to suggest the illness that initiates the drama of the sutra. One of the earliest iconographic illustrations of Vimalakirti is believed to have been painted by the celebrated Eastern Jin (317-420) master, Gu Kaizhi (c. 344-406).
With the pronounced facial features, cascading garment and the dark-grayish colored limestone, this figure is carved in the style of Northern Wei (386-534) stone sculptures in the Longmen cave temples located south of Luoyang in Henan province. The benign facial expression incarnating compassion and gentleness is created by a deeply carved groove around the mouth. The sloping shoulder and cascading garment with various folds falling over the body indicated by low-relief lines deliberately emphasise the linearity of the overall composition. Its compact size suggests that he was likely part of an elaborate votive pantheon or stele, possibly depicting the popular religious debate with Manjushri, the 'Bodhisattva of Wisdom', along with various disciples and deities witnessing the illuminating conversations.
Compare depictions of Vimalakirti in the Yungang grottoes, particularly a carving of the debate found in Cave no. 6 and illustrated in Seiichi Mizuno, Yun-Kang: The Buddhist Cave-Temples of the Fifth Century A.D. in North China, Kyoto, 1951-56, vol III, pl. 31 (fig.1). Vimalakirti's foreign origins are still quite visible in this rendition. He wears a Phrygian cap, tall boots, and the upwardly peaked fan is still of deer tail, unlike the feathered versions more familiar to Chinese artisans. Even within the Yungang grottoes, the evolution and sinification of Vimalakirti can be detected, and by the sixth century, several elements including the fan and the figure's wardrobe abandon their western heritage. By the Tang dynasty, illustrations of the debate developed further and painted representations of the sutra began to outnumber stone carvings.
A carving of Vimalakirti in the Yungang grottoes, Cave no. 6, as illustrated in Seiichi Mizuno, Yun-Kang: The Buddhist Cave-Temples of the Fifth Century A.D. in North China, Kyoto, 1951-56, vol III, pl. 31.
The Longman caves also include figures carved in a similar style, such as three bodhisattvas seated in a pensive pose, illustrated in Zhongguo meishi quanji: Diaosu bian. [Complete series on Chinese art: Sculpture section], 11: Longmen shiku diaoke [Sculptures of the Longmen caves], Shanghai, 1988, pls 53-5; and a fragment of a flying apsara, from the collection of Albright-Knox Art Gallery, sold in these rooms, 19th-20th March 2007, lot 506. See also other stone representations of Vimalakirti, along with other standing disciples and angel-like female figures hovering mid-air, illustrated in Longmen Shiku, Beijing, 1980, pl. 112, and Li Wensheng ed., Longmen shiku zhuangshi diaoke, Shanghai, 1991, pl. 139.
Sotheby's. Junkunc: Chinese Buddhist Sculpture, New York, 12 Sep 2018.