Lot 116. A magnificent gilt-bronze seated figure of bodhisattva, Early Ming dynasty, late 14th-15th century; 14 7/8 in (37.5 cm) high, excluding stand. Estimate GBP 300,000 - GBP 500,000 (USD 391,200 - USD 652,000). Price realised GBP 731,250. © Christie's Images Ltd 2019
The bodhisattva is seated in rajalilasana, the posture of royal ease, with his right hand resting on his raised knee and holding a bead, possibly the wish-granting jewel,cintamani, and the left hand resting on a closed book. His hair is swept back into a topknot beneath the crown, and long plaits cascade down the shoulders. The face has downcast eyes and a serene expression. The deity wears bracelets, earrings and a beaded necklace. A shawl is draped over the shoulders and around the arms and hisdhoti is tied in a bow below the waist. The hems are finely detailed with incised lotus heads on scrolling foliage.
Provenance: Private Collection.
With Eskenazi Ltd, London, 2000.
Literature: A Dealer's Hand, The Chinese Art World Through The Eyes of Giuseppe Eskenazi, London, 2012, pl. 100, p 215.
The Maturation of a Tradition:
An Early Ming Sculpture of the Water Moon Guanyin
Apart from its compelling beauty, this early Ming sculpture representing a bodhisattva seated in the pose of royal ease is important for its impressive size and great rarity. Though its exact identity remains uncertain, the figure likely represents the so-called Water Moon Guanyin, a subject frequently depicted in Buddhist paintings of the Song, Yuan (1279–1368), and Ming (1368–1644) periods but only infrequently portrayed in contemporaneous sculptures.
Meaning “enlightened being”, a bodhisattva is a benevolent being who has attained enlightenment but who has selflessly postponed entry into nirvana in order to assist other sentient beings—in gaining enlightenment and thereby release from the samsara cycle of birth and rebirth. Bodhisattvas thus embody the Mahayana Buddhist ideal of delivering all living creatures from suffering. Thanks to the enormous stores they have amassed, bodhisattvas are able to assist others through the transfer of meritorious karma to those in need, a concept known in Sanskrit as parinamana and in Chinese as huixiang.
Bodhisattvas are presented in the guise of an early Indian prince, a reference to Siddhartha Gautama’s worldly status before he became the Historical Buddha Shakyamuni, implying that just as Siddhartha (traditionally, c. 563–c. 483 BC), who was born a crown prince, became a Buddha, so will bodhisattvas eventually become Buddhas, once all sentient beings have attained enlightenment. As evinced by this majestic sculpture, bodhisattvas generally are depicted with a single head, two arms, and two legs, though they in fact may be shown with multiple heads and limbs, depending upon the individual bodhisattva and the particular manifestation as described in the sutras, or sacred texts. Richly attired, bodhisattvas, who may be presented either standing or seated, are represented with long hair often arranged in a tall coiffure, or bun, atop the head, typically with long strands of hair cascading over the shoulders, and often with a crown surrounding the high topknot, all as seen in this sculpture. Bodhisattvas wear ornamental scarves, dhotis of rich silk brocade, and a wealth of jewelry that typically includes necklaces, armlets, bracelets, and anklets. Like Buddhas, bodhisattvas have distended earlobes; some wear earrings, others do not. Though bodhisattvas generally are shown barefoot, as in this sculpture, both early Indian and early Chinese images of bodhisattvas may be shown wearing sandals, often of plaited straw.
This sculpture presents the bodhisattva seated in lalitasana, or the pose of royal ease. The figure sits with back straight and body erect—the embodiment of perfect posture—the head turned slightly to the left and with the eyes downcast and heavily lidded. The figure’s right leg is flexed and pulled up with the knee at chest height, the extended right arm resting on the right knee and the fingers of the right hand gingerly holding either a wish-granting jewel, or cintamani, or a bead, perhaps from a now-lost rosary. The left leg is pendant, and the left arm is lowered for support, with the hand resting on a traditional book-storage box that is tied with a cord and presumably contains a Buddhist sutra in either Indian-style palm-leaf manuscript format or Chinese accordion-fold book format.
This figure wears both an undergarment that is held in place by a cincture at the waist and a dhoti that hangs to the ankles and that is secured at the hips with a long cord whose ends flutter as if animated by a breeze; though otherwise without ornament inside and out—the inside of the robe is visible beneath the bodhisattva’s right foot—each garment sports an elaborate floral border at top and bottom. Embellished with brocaded edges, a capelet covers the upper part of the figure’s back, envelopes the shoulders, loops over the upper arms, and then falls to the figure’s legs, the left end terminating under the box on which the figure’s left hand rests, and the right end appearing at the bottom of the sculpture, beneath the figure’s right foot and resembling a scudding cloud. In addition to the crown, this bodhisattva wears earrings, bracelets, and an elaborate beaded necklace, the crown and necklace inset with semiprecious stones.
Although lacking a definitive diagnostic iconographic attribute, this sculpture likely represents Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Infinite Compassion—who is known in Chinese as Guanshiyin Pusa, or more simply as Guanyin. A translation of the Sanskrit name Avalokiteshvara, Guanshiyin means “[The One Who] Perceives the Sounds of the World”, a reference to Guanyin’s ability to hear both the cries of the afflicted and the prayers of supplicants. Guanyin, an earthly manifestation of the Buddha Amitabha, guards the world in the interval between the departure of the Historical Buddha Shakyamuni and the appearance of Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future. Though Guanyin figures in more than eighty different sutras, the Lotus Sutra—known in Sanskrit as the Saddharma Pundarika Sutra and in Chinese as the Miaofa Lianhua Jing—is generally accepted as the earliest sacred text that presents the doctrines of Avalokiteshvara, that presentation occurring in Chapter 25. Titled Guanshiyin Pusa Pumenpin and devoted to Guanyin, that chapter describes Guanyin as a bodhisattva of infinite compassion who hears the cries of sentient beings and who works tirelessly to help all those who call upon his name. Thirty-three different manifestations of the bodhisattva are described, including female manifestations as well as ones with multiple heads and multiple limbs. This chapter has long circulated independently as stand-alone sutra called the Avalokiteshvara Sutra, or Guanshiyin Jingin Chinese, and is commonly recited or chanted at Buddhist temples in East Asia.
Regarded as a spiritual emanation of the Buddha Amitabha, Guanyin ordinarily is identified by the small representation of Amitabha that appears in the bodhisattva’s crown or at the front of the tall topknot of hair. The lack of an image of Amitabha atop this figure’s head has led some to question whether this sculpture truly represents Guanyin or might represent another bodhisattva. In fact, Chinese artists traditionally employed the royal ease pose only in association with major bodhisattvas, mainly in depicting Guanyin but occasionally also in portraying Manjushri—Wenshu Pusa in Chinese—the Bodhisattva of Transcendental Wisdom. The suggestion that this sculpture might represent Manjushri arises from the presence of the book on which the bodhisattva rests the left hand (as Manjushri’s standard attributes are a book and a sword). Even so, roughly contemporaneous sculptures clearly identified as Guanyin by the presence of an Amitabha Buddha atop the head also occasionally hold a book in the left hand. Whether wish-granting jewel or rosary bead, the object held in the figure’s right hand also is one occasionally associated with Guanyin. Now in the collection of New York’s Metropolitan Museum, a multi-armed Guanyin from the Dali Kingdom and dating to the eleventh or twelfth century holds a rosary in the lowered left hand (56.223). And the wish-granting jewel, or cintamani, ordinarily is associated only with Bodhisattvas Guanyin and Dizang (Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha in Sanskrit), but not with Manjushri. Thus, the presence of both book and jewel or bead, in association with the pose of royal ease, argues that this figure most likely represents Guanyin.
The collection of the Musée Guimet, Paris, includes a closely related, if slightly smaller (H. 23.5 cm) gilt bronze sculpture that also depicts a bodhisattva seated in the pose of royal ease and with the left hand resting on a book (accession number MG 10639) (Fig 1.). In the Guimet collection since 1894, the sculpture traditionally has been labeled Manjushri and dated to the eighteenth century, but Ma Yuanhao, a specialist in Chinese Buddhist sculpture, recently has reassigned it to Yuan-dynasty China and has identified the figure as Guanyin, his argument based on the assumption that the somewhat unconventionally presented figure atop the head represents Amitabha. Given that the Guimet sculpture probably represents Guanyin and that the present sculpture and the Guimet sculpture are closely related in style, general appearance, and mode of presentation, the present sculpture indeed likely represents Guanyin, an argument strengthened all the more by the pose and by the presence of the book and jewel.
Fig 1. Le Boddhisattva Manjuçrî assis appuyé sur le livre du Prajnâpâramitâ sûtra, 18e siècle. H. 23.5 cm. Paris, musée Guimet - musée national des Arts asiatiques, MG10639. Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (MNAAG, Paris) / Daniel Arnaudet.
Suggesting both tranquility and a relaxed withdrawal from the world, the royal ease pose implies that the figure so seated is at peace with both world and self and is engaged in contemplation. When seated in the pose of royal ease, Guanyin usually is presented either as the White Robed Guanyin or as the Water Moon Guanyin. The two are easily distinguished in paintings, as the White Robed Guanyin wears a simple, unadorned white robe with a scarf or shawl that covers the head—often concealing any crown or topknot of hair—and is typically placed in a subdued landscape with a waterfall; by contrast the Water Moon Guanyin is usually draped in the conventional robes of a bodhisattva and is set in a dense blue-and-green-style landscape representing a paradise bedecked with coral and jewels, with a moon above (that often serves as Guanyin’s mandorla), and with a pond below in which the moon is reflected—hence the name Water Moon Guanyin. Even when sculptures lack the original base and surround, as typically is the case, the two modes are easily distinguished, as the White Robed Guanyin is presented with a scarf over the head, as evinced by a Five Dynasties (907–960) to Northern Song (960–1127), gilt bronze sculpture in the Cleveland Museum of Art (1984.7), whereas the Water Moon Guanyin is presented with a bodhisattva’s standard robes and jewelry, with a topknot of hair, and often with a crown.
An original base for a Water Moon Guanyin sculpture, when present, typically represents the large, flat-topped rock on which Guanyin sits in his paradise. Although only the bases of wooden sculptures usually survive, a ceramic sculpture from the Longquan kilns in Zhejiang province, dating to the Yuan to early Ming period and just slightly earlier than the present sculpture, depicts the Water Moon Guanyin seated in the pose of royal ease on a flat-topped rocky outcropping with craggy sides that rises from rolling waves below; in the collection of the British Museum, London (1991,0304.3), the sculpture, which the museum’s curators date between 1300 and 1400, suggests the possible appearance of the base on which the present bodhisattva originally rested. Though much later, a Qing-dynasty (1644–1912) parcel-gilt bronze sculpture representing a White Robed Guanyin seated in royal ease and holding a baby retains its original base, the sculpture now in the collection of the Liaoning Provincial Museum, Shenyang. In the form of a rocky outcropping rising from rolling seas and symbolizing Mount Putuo, where Guanyin’s paradise is believed to be, that base, though much exaggerated and populated with several accompanying figures, again perhaps suggests something of the general appearance of the bases of Song, Yuan, and Ming gilt bronze sculptures representing the Water Moon Guanyin.
A parcel-gilt bronze sculpture representing a White Robed Guanyin seated in royal ease and holding a baby, Qing-dynasty (1644–1912), in the collection of the Liaoning Provincial Museum, Shenyang.
Not specifically mentioned in the sutras, Guanyin’s Water Moon manifestation was inspired by that episode in the story of the celebrated pilgrimage made by the devout Indian boy Sudhana—who is called Shancai Tongzi in Chinese—in which he visits Guanyin in his mountain paradise. As chronicled in the Gandavyuha Sutra—which is known in Chinese as Rufajie pin and which is the thirty-ninth and last chapter of the Avatamsaka Sutra—Sudhana, at the behest of Bodhisattva Manjushri, undertook a pilgrimage in quest of enlightenment, visiting and studying with fifty-three teachers and bodhisattvas until his journey finally led him to an understanding of the teachings of the Buddha. The twenty-eighth spiritual master that Sudhana visited was Avalokiteshvara, or Guanyin, whom he encountered in the deity’s residence atop Mount Potalaka, which Chinese identify as Mount Putuo, an island believed to be in the East China Sea, to the southeast of present-day Shanghai. The description of Sudhana’s encounter with Guanyin as described in the Gandavyuha Sutra provides the textual source for the Water Moon manifestation. In China, devotion to Guanyin was popularized through the sutras, miracle tales, and legends by which the deity became associated with such natural elements as water and the moon, which, in turn, evoke themes of impermanence and change, reality, and reflection.
The pose of royal ease—a literal translation of the Sanskrit terms lalitasana, rajalalitasana, and maharajalalitasana, the several terms denoting the exact placement and arrangement of the legs—traces its origins to ancient India. A second-century crossbar roundel from Amaravati and now in the British Museum (1880,0709.5) depicts King Suddhodana, the Buddha’s father, so seated during a visit to Queen Maya, the Buddha’s mother, in the Asoka Grove in Lumbini, thus giving literal association to the term “pose of royal ease”.
Chinese artists first employed the royal ease pose in describing Buddhist figures in the eighth and ninth centuries, as witnessed by a ninth-century portable painting from Dunhuang depicting the Bodhisattva Manjushri Seated on a Lion and now in the British Museum, London (1919,0101,0.141). And, though early Chinese sculptures of Buddhist deities seated in royal ease are rare, a mid-eighth-century bronze sculpture in the Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City, portraying Guanyin Seated on Mount Potalaka represents the Tang interpretation of the subject (F88-37/52). In fact, according to Wladimir Zwalf, formerly a keeper at the British Museum, the earliest archaeologically attested and thus reliably datable Chinese sculpture of a bodhisattva seated in royal ease—identical in pose to that of the present bodhisattva—is a finely cast gilt bronze made during the tenth century in the Wu-Yue Kingdom in east China and excavated from the Wanfo pagoda, Jinhua, Zhejiang province.
Seated Potalaka Guanyin Bodhisattva, Mid-8th century C.E. Bronze, 15.56 x 8.26 x 3.81 cm. Bequest of Laurence Sickman, F88-37/52. © The Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City.
Foreshadowing later sculptural interpretations of the subject, a gilt bronze example portraying the Water Moon Guanyin that dates to the tenth or eleventh century and that now is in the collection of the Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, MA, typifies the Five Dynasties to early Northern Song style (1943.53.60) (Fig 2). A very early sculptural depiction of the Water Moon Guanyin, the Harvard work establishes the general appearance and mode of presentation for most subsequent gilt bronze representations of this subject. In like manner, the previously mentioned Five Dynasties to Northern Song, gilt bronze sculpture in the Cleveland Museum is among the earliest known sculptural representations of the White Robed Guanyin (1984.7). As the Harvard sculpture set the standard for subsequent gilt bronze representations of the Water Moon Guanyin, so did the Cleveland sculpture establish the mode for subsequent gilt bronze depictions of the White Robed Guanyin. Seated in the languid pose of royal ease, the Harvard sculpture has the oval face, bare chest with elaborate beaded necklace, capelet covering the upper back and enveloping the shoulders, and voluminous dhoti that covers the lower part of the body from the waist to the ankles, all of which would become the hallmarks of Yuan and Ming gilt bronze representations of the Water Moon Guanyin in Chinese style (as opposed to the Tibetan-influenced style that would become popular early in the Ming period).
Water and Moon (Potala) Guanyin, China, Five dynasties (907-960) - Song dynasty (960-1279). Gilt bronze, 17.6 cm, The Severance and Greta Millikin Purchase Fund 1984.7. © Cleveland Museum of Art.
Fig 2. Bodhisattva Seated in Position of Royal Ease, Tang dynasty to Five Dynasties period, 9th-10th century. Gilt bronze. H. 39.5 cm. Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Bequest of Grenville L. Winthrop, 1943.53.60. © Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, MA.
Sculptural representations of the Water Moon Guanyin gained popularity in the Northern Song period, that popularity continuing into the Liao and Jin periods, through the Yuan dynasty, and into the Ming, the majority of those sculptures carved in wood. Well-known examples are in the collections of the Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City (34-10), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (28.56), Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (50.590), British Museum (1920,0615.1), Harvard Art Museums (1928.110), Victoria and Albert Museum (A.7-1935), and Princeton University Art Museum (y1950-66), among others. In addition, numerous ceramic sculptures produced in qingbai porcelain at Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province, during the Yuan dynasty represent the Water Moon Guanyin, including examples in the Palace Museum, Beijing, the Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City, MO (35-5), the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (1991.253.27), and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (C30-1968), among others.
The present sculpture’s immediate predecessors are those gilt bronze sculptures depicting the Water Moon Guanyin that were produced during the Yuan dynasty. Though few in number, they descend from sculptures of the Harvard type and display a remarkable consistency in style, general appearance, and mode of presentation. In addition to the previously mentioned sculpture in the Musée Guimet, Paris (MG 10639), which, unlike the others, has a goatee, additional examples include those in the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto (991.63.1), Asian Art Museum, San Francisco (B60S566), British Museum, London (1947,0712.392) (Fig 3), and Ashmolean Museum at Oxford University (EA1956.1376). Slightly different in appearance, a bronze sculpture sold at Sotheby’s, Paris, on 11 December 2014 (lot 105) nevertheless is related and is part of the same group.
Figure of Guanyin (Avalokitesvara) seated in royal ease, Yuan Dynasty-Ming Dynasty, mid 14th-mid 15th Century. Gilt bronze, 34.3 cm.Dr. Herman Herzog Levy Bequest Fund, 991.63.1. © Royal Ontario Museum
Fig 3. Figure of Avalokiteśvara; seated in position of a variant form of ‘rājalīlāsana’ (royal ease), 13thC-14thC. Made of gilt bronze. Height: 28.7 cm. Bequeathed by Henry J Oppenheim, 1947,0712.392. © 2019 Trustees of the British Museum.
Seated figure of a bodhisattva, 2nd half of the 12th century - 1st half of the 13th century, Song Dynasty (AD 960 - 1279), gilt bronze, 19.5 x 12.5 x 8 cm max. Presented by Sir Herbert Ingram, 1956, EA1956.1376. © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford
Impressive and compelling, the present sculpture is rare and important, as it is one of the few gilt bronze representations of the Water Moon Guanyin from the early Ming period and likely dates to the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century. This sculpture’s style represents an evolution from that of the Yuan-period images mentioned above, and its salient stylistic features mark it as a generation later than those figures, placing it in early Ming times. The broad shoulders and leonine chest convey a new sense of majesty, for example, just as the slightly larger head, which boasts larger eyes as well as topknot of hair encircled by a crown, imparts a strong sense of personality. Moreover, though still oval, the face is fuller and the cheeks flesher than those of the earlier sculptures, the dimples that frame the mouth are deeper and more pronounced, and the earrings are larger and more emphatic, all of which hint at Tibetan influence, as do the inlays of semiprecious stones in the crown and necklace; even so, the sculpture assuredly is still in traditional Chinese, rather than Tibeto-Chinese, style. In addition, the securing of the undergarment just below the ribcage and the draping of the capelet so that it falls from the shoulder onto the right leg add visual interest to the long torso and thus imbue the figure with life. And a slightly revised arrangement of the drapery over the legs clarifies not only the position of the legs but their anatomical relationship to the rest of the body (an element that tends to be slightly ambiguous and not a little awkward in the Yuan sculptures). Despite the languid posture, the torso retains a sense of unmoving solidity, disturbed by neither overt movement nor dramatic distortion. Draping the lower body with effortless ease, the garments flow naturally and confidently, conforming to the body beneath and thus revealing both the presence and the form of that body. All of these features signal the emergence of a new and mature style that succeeds the style pioneered in the Yuan dynasty and that lays the foundation for further evolution in the Ming. Even so, with its hints of Indo-Tibetan influence—visible in the treatment of the face, for example, and in the use both of large earrings and of inlays of semiprecious stones—this sculpture anticipates the rise of the Tibeto-Chinese style.
Indeed, a Xuande period (1436–1435), Tibeto-Chinese-style, gilt bronze sculpture long in a Scottish collection that sold at Sotheby’s, Hong Kong, on 8 April 2011 (lot 2839) depicts Guanyin seated in a pose of royal ease and incorporates elements drawn both from traditional Chinese styles and from the Indo-Tibetan tradition. Bearing an inscription dated to 1435—i.e., to the tenth year of the Xuande reign—the sculpture blends elements of the two styles to create a new, hybrid style and thus reveals the importance of the present sculpture in the evolution and development of Chinese sculptural styles. From the traditional style, the 1435 sculpture drew the beaded necklace and the capelet with embellished edges and long tails that envelope the shoulders and loop over the legs as well as the two-part lower garment, each plain and unadorned except for the brocaded edge at top and bottom. From the Indo-Tibetan style, the 1435 sculpture drew the compressed double-lotus base and the change of posture, from the lalitasana pose of the present sculpture to the rajalalitasana pose, a variant of the royal ease pose, in which the left leg is drawn up, knee flexed, but turned so that the leg lies flat and is perpendicular to the torso, as if the figure had been seated in the lotus position but then shifted positions and raised right knee to chest height. From the Indo-Tibetan style, the 1435 sculpture also drew the figure’s elegant proportions and sensuous air, meticulously rendered details, and relatively square face with fleshy cheeks and small features pulled toward the center.
A Magnificent And Very Rare Inscribed GiIt-Bronze Figure 0f Avalokitesvara, Ming Dynasty, Xuande Period, Dated To 1435; 78 cm., 30 3/4 in. Sold for 4.248,718 USD at Sotheby's Hong Kong 8 April 2011, lot 2839. Photo Sotheby's.
Not only rare and beautiful, this sculpture is exceptionally important as it represents the maturation of a long developmental sequence yet foreshadows the adoption of the new Tibeto-Chinese style. Alas, this sculpture’s tenure as a transition between the traditional and Tibeto-Chinese styles would be brief, as the imperial court and its monied followers came to favor Tibetan-style Buddhism early in the Ming dynasty, particularly during the Yongle (1403–1425) and Xuande eras, when the imperial court made a concerted effort to build secular and religious alliances with Tibet, even inviting Tibetan monks to the capital, Beijing, to conduct religious services, with the result that by Yongle and Xuande times, the new Tibeto-Chinese style of sculpture had come to be the most preferred, eclipsing, but not wholly pushing aside, the traditional Chinese style.
Robert D. Mowry
Alan J. Dworsky Curator of Chinese Art Emeritus, Harvard Art Museums, and Senior Consultant, Christie’s.