Lot 2713. A highly important majestic pair of wood figures of standing bodhisattvas, Five Dynasties-Northern Song dynasty (10th-11th century). Estimate HKD 40,000,000 - HKD 60,000,000Price realised HKD 45,205,000© Christie's Image Ltd 2019.

Comprised of a standing figure of Guanyin, and a standing figure of Mahasthamaprapta, each regal bodhisattva is standing swayed gently to one side, with one hand raised and the other hand holding the end of the celestial scarf wrapped around the arms and back. Each wears a dhoti falling in loose folds, the upper torso left bare and partially covered with elaborate bejewelled necklaces, the eyes downcast with a benevolent expression. The Guanyin figure wears a crown centered by a diminutive image of Amitabha, while the figure of Mahasthamaprapta wears a crown centered by a vase. Both are raised on later lotus plinths. 

Guanyin: 56 ¾ in. (144 cm.) high; overall height including stand: 67 1/2 in. (171.5 cm.) high
Mahasthamaprapta: 57 1/8 in. (145 cm.) high; overall height including stand: 68 1/8 in. (173cm.) high.

ProvenanceYamanaka & Co., Tokyo, acquired prior to 1924
An American private collection
Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 6 November 1996, lot 937.

Literature: Yamanaka & Co., Shina kobijutsu taikan [Comprehensive Review of Ancient Chinese Art], Osaka, 1924, no. 149.

The result of Paleo Labo Radiocarbon Dating test nos. PLD-31409 and PLD-31410 (8 April 2016) is consistent with the dating of this lot.

Robert D. Mowry
Alan J. Dworsky Curator of Chinese Art Emeritus,
Harvard Art Museums, and Senior Consultant, Christies

Wooden sculptures from the Five Dynasties 五代 (907–960) and Northern Song 北宋 (960–1127) periods are exceptionally rare; that these majestic sculptures not only have survived but have remained together as a pair signals their extraordinary importance and elevates them to the status of revered treasures. Published as early as 1924,1 these refined and very compelling figures rank among the masterworks of Chinese Buddhist sculpture.  

Elegantly outfitted in the sumptuous trappings of an Indian prince of old, these exquisite sculptures represent bodhisattvas 菩薩,2 benevolent beings who have attained enlightenment 菩提 but who have selflessly postponed entry into nirvana 涅槃 in order to assist other sentient beings—有情 or 眾生—in gaining enlightenment.3 A bodhisattva is an altruistic being who embodies the Mahayana Buddhist 大乘佛教 ideal of delivering all living creatures from suffering 普度眾生. Richly attired, bodhisattvas, who may be presented either standing or seated, are represented with long hair characteristically arranged in a tall coiffure, or bun, atop the head and often with long strands of hair cascading over the shoulders, as seen in these sculptures. Bodhisattvas wear ornamental scarves, dhotis of rich silk brocade, and a wealth of jewelry that typically includes necklaces, armlets, bracelets, and anklets. Each of these figures wears a scarf and a necklace, for example, as well as a crown that encloses the high topknot of hair. Though bodhisattvas generally are shown barefoot, as in these sculptures, both early Indian and early Chinese images of bodhisattvas may be shown wearing sandals, often of plaited straw.4  

These sculptures represent two specific bodhisattvas, Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of infinite compassion—who is known formally in Chinese as Guanshiyin Pusa 觀世音菩薩, or more simply as Guanyin Pusa 觀音菩薩—and Mahasthamaprapta, the bodhisattva of the power of wisdom, who is known in Chinese as Dashizhi Pusa 大勢至菩薩. By Tang times 唐時代 (618–907) these two bodhisattvas typically were presented as a pair and in association with the Buddha Amitabha 阿彌陀佛. In fact, Guanyin is regarded as a spiritual emanation of Amitabha and is identified by the small representation of Amitabha that appears at the front of the bodhisattva’s crown. Symbolizing wisdom, the long-necked water bottle 水瓶—in other instances, a covered jar—at the front of the crown identifies the other bodhisattva as Dashizhi.5  

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. An earthly manifestation of the Buddha Amitabha, Guanyin guards the world in the interval between the departure of the Historical Buddha Shakyamuni and the appearance of Maitreya 彌勒, the Buddha of the Future. The Lotus Sutra—known in Sanskrit as the Saddharma Pundarika Sutra and in Chinese as the Miaofa Lianhua Jing 妙法蓮華經—is generally accepted as the earliest sacred text that presents the doctrines of Avalokiteshvara, that presentation occurring in Chapter 25.6 Titled Guanshiyin Pusa Pumenpin 觀世音菩薩普門品 and devoted to Guanyin,7 that chapter describes Guanyin as a compassionate bodhisattva who hears the cries of sentient beings and who works tirelessly to help all those who call upon his name. The text describes thirty-three different manifestations of the bodhisattva, 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 Jing 觀世音經 in Chinese, and is commonly recited or chanted at Buddhist temples in East Asia. 

Originally set on a temple altar, these two sculptures would have appeared on either side of a Buddha, forming a triad 三尊. The Buddha, which could have been either standing or seated, likely would have been Amitabha. Guanyin typically appeared to the (viewer’s) left, and Dashizhi to the right, of the central Buddha, through the placement occasionally was reversed. The altar group might have included additional figures, hierarchically scaled and symmetrically arranged. A monk or disciple might have been tucked between the Buddha and each bodhisattva, for example, just as a guardian figure might have appeared at each outer edge of the assemblage. Akin to angels, celestial figures termed apsaras 飛天 possibly hovered above, venerating the Buddha, playing musical instruments, or making offerings of alms or flowers.  

The three early eighth-century stone relief carvings formerly in the collection of the Japanese art dealer Hayasaki Kōichi 早崎孝一 (1874–1956), each of which depicts a triad with Guanyin and Dashizhi standing on either side of a Buddha, reveal how the present sculptures likely would have been placed in a triad.10 On its back face, a stele in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (30.122),11 includes three niches, each of which features a seated Buddha flanked by two standing bodhisattvas and two standing monks, thus illustrating how this pair of bodhisattvas might have been arranged in a grouping of more than three figures; a Sui-dynasty 隋朝 (581–618) bronze altarpiece in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (22.407)12 and a Sui or early Tang, gilt bronze altarpiece in the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco (B60 B8+)13 also reveal how these bodhisattvas might have been placed in a grouping of more than three figures. 

Although they may be presented individually, bodhisattvas generally are presented in pairs and associated with particular Buddhas, in which case the three are featured together in triad form 三尊. Thus, Bodhisattvas Guanyin and Dashizhi generally appear on either side of the Buddha Amitabha, while Bodhisattvas Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Transcendental Wisdom, and Samantabhadra—Wenshu 文殊菩薩 and Puxian 普賢菩薩 in Chinese—typically flank the Historical Buddha Shakyamuni. In like manner Bodhisattvas Suryaprabha and Candraprabha—Riguang 日光菩薩 and Yueguang 月光菩薩 in Chinese—stand to the left and right of the Medicine Buddha 藥師佛.  

Named bodhisattvas characteristically possess an identifying iconographic attribute. A spiritual emanation of the Buddha Amitabha, Guanyin is identified by the small image of Amitabha that appears at the front of the bodhisattva’s crown or coiffure. As symbolic attribute, Dashizhi typically claims either a covered jar or a long-necked bottle, the vessel appearing at the front of the topknot or crown. Both Guanyin and Dashizhi may hold a lotus bud or blossom; if so, Guanyin usually holds it in the left hand, the flower typically appearing at the left shoulder, while Dashizhi holds it in the right hand.  

Most Chinese Buddhist sculptures created before the Song dynasty 宋朝 (960–1279) were carved in stone or cast in bronze. Because government persecutions in 845 and early 846 seized the land and wealth of many Buddhist temples, severely limited the Buddhist church’s tax-exempt status, and returned great numbers of Buddhist monks and nuns to lay life, Buddhism was much weakened in China after the mid-ninth century. With both their accumulated wealth and their annual income significantly reduced, Buddhist temples turned to wood as the favored material for sculptures from the late ninth century onward, as wood was less expensive than bronze and was easier, and thus less expensive, than stone to carve. Though some Buddhist sculptures must have been carved in wood in pre-Song times, few of those survive, so that most extant Chinese Buddhist wooden sculptures date to the tenth century or later.  

Like virtually all early Buddhist sculptures of stone and wood, these two bodhisattvas originally were embellished with brightly colored mineral pigments, the colors likely including saffron, blues, and greens for the robes and scarves, gilding for the jewelry, pink or white for the flesh, and black, or possibly blue, for the hair. Indeed, these sculptures retain traces of pigment and of the gesso ground on which the pigments were applied. (White in color, gesso was applied to smooth the wood or stone surface and to render it chalk-white so that pigments appear to best advantage in terms of color and clarity.) The Buddhist sculptures in the Mogao grottoes at Dunhuang, Gansu province 甘肃省敦煌莫高窟, retain the greatest amount of original pigment of all early Chinese sculptures, but Buddhist wood sculptures of the Song 宋 (960–1279), Liao 遼 (907–1125), Jin 金 (1115–1234), and Yuan 元 (1279–1368) periods often exhibit traces of original pigment, as well, as witnessed by the well-known Guanyin of the Southern Sea 南海觀音 sculpture in the collection of the Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City, MO (34-10).14  

When under worship in a temple, each sculpture in the triad would have been backed by either a halo or a mandorla 背光, the lotus-petal-shaped aureole 光環 suggesting light radiating from the deity’s body and thus signaling its divine status. (Symbolizing divinity, a halo is a circle, or disc, of light that appears behind the head of a deity; a mandorla is a full-body halo.) That each of these sculptures lacks a tenon between the shoulder blades or at the back of the head to receive a sculpted mandorla suggests that the aureoles were painted on the wall behind the figures. Such integration of painting and sculpture was a characteristic feature of traditional Buddhist temples. The aureoles likely incorporated floral designs arranged in a scrolling arabesque, perhaps with an open lotus blossom featured en face directly behind each figure’s head.  

The present bases on which these bodhisattvas stand are twentieth-century replacements for lost originals. As few bases for wooden sculptures survive from Song times, the exact appearance of these sculptures’ original lotus bases is difficult to determine; even so, the bases for a pair of Northern Song 北宋 (960–1127) sculptures representing standing bodhisattvas dated to the tenth- to eleventh-century and now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (39.76.1-2), bear a close resemblance to the upper portion of the present sculptures’ bases, suggesting that these bases likely capture something of the original bases’ appearance.15 In addition, the base for a Yuan-dynasty wooden sculpture of a standing Guanyin dated by inscription to 1282, also in the Metropolitan Museum collection (34.15.1),16 corresponds closely to the upper portion of the bases on which these bodhisattvas stand.  

A pair of Tang-dynasty 唐朝 (618–907) limestone figures representing bodhisattvas Guanyin and Dashizhi that sold at Christie’s, New York, in September 2018 (lots 1123 and 1123)17 presents the two bodhisattvas standing side-by-side in virtually the same poses assumed by this pair, illustrating the descent of sculptures of this type from Tang-dynasty forebearers. The depiction of bodhisattvas Guanyin and Dashizhi standing side-by-side on a mid- to late seventh-century limestone stele in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (30.122),18 corresponds closely to that of the Christie’s bodhisattvas and further traces the present figures’ typological origins to Tang sculptures.  

Even so, these majestic sculptures date to the Northern Song 北宋 period (960–1127), or perhaps even a little earlier, to the Five Dynasties 五代 period (907–960), as indicated by the slight stockiness of the figures—the impression of stockiness imparted by the short necks and heads that are a little small in proportion to the bodies—as well as by the attenuation of the figures, noted particularly in the elongation of the legs. In addition, the faces’ square shape—in contrast to the full, round faces of most Tang figures—points to the sculptures’ tenth-to-twelfth-century date, as do the crowns and the scarves that cross from each figure’s waist to its elbows (the scarves perhaps further serving as struts, or structural supports, for the arms). More complex than the necklaces typical of Tang sculptures, these bodhisattvas’ “fishnet pattern” necklaces find parallels in Chinese wooden sculptures of the Northern Song period, as evinced by a standing attendant bodhisattva in the collection of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (28.123).19  

The closest counterparts to the present sculptures is an unpublished sculpture of painted wood in the collection of the Fuji Yurinkan in Kyoto, Japan 京都市藤井有鄰館. The face of the Yurinkan figure is similar to those of the present bodhisattvas, even if its body is a little stockier, its torso plumper and its legs less elongated. The “fishnet-style” necklaces of the three figures are virtually identical, and the dhotis fall over the figures’ legs in a virtually identical pattern of folds. The similarity in style and general appearance of the Yurinkan sculpture to the present figures suggests that all three sculptures likely were produced in the same workshop and by the same team of sculptors. 

Apart from the Yurinkan figure, two wooden sculptures representing bodhisattvas in the collection of the British Museum, London (1987,1221.1-2),20 and dated to the Five Dynasties period are closely allied in style to the present sculptures, underscoring the possibility that the present sculptures might also date to the Five Dynasties period—that is, to the tenth century. Unlike the present figures, the British Museum sculptures lack iconographic attributes, and they hold their arms in exactly the same positions—each with right arm lowered and with left arm flexed at the elbow and hand raised to chest height—indicating that they came from a large grouping of Buddhist deities that included multiple bodhisattvas rather than from a simple triad. Even so, the British Museum figures are slightly elongated, like the present sculptures, and the drapery falls over the legs in virtually identical fashion.  

In addition to the Fuji Yurinkan and British Museum sculptures, four wooden sculptures in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, are close counterparts to the present figures. Two of those four sculptures including a pair of attendant bodhisattvas formerly attributed to the Tang dynasty21 but now reassigned to the Northern Song period and dated to the tenth- to eleventh-century (39.76.1-2).22 The third of the Metropolitan Museum sculptures is the previously mentioned standing bodhisattva with “fishnet necklace” (28.123), dated to the tenth- to eleventh-century and which also shows stylistic kinship to the present figures; the fourth is a sculpture of Bodhisattva Manjushri 遊戲坐文殊菩薩像 seated in rajalilasana 遊戲坐, or the pose of royal ease, and dated to the late tenth to early twelfth century (42.25.5).23  

Published as early as 1924, these elegant, refined bodhisattvas are masterworks of Chinese Buddhist sculpture. They perfectly represent the early Song-dynasty style, illustrating that style’s descent from Tang sculptures of the eighth century while incorporating those features that signal the emergence of a new style and the turn toward a new direction; as such, they rank as classics, not only of Chinese sculpture but of world sculpture. 

1 See: Yamanaka and Company, Shina Ko Bijutsu Taikan [Catalogue of a Collection of Chinese Art] (Osaka: Yamanaka and Company), 1924, no. 149 / 山中商會編, 《支那古美術大觀》(大阪:山中商會), 1924年, 編號一百四十九.
2 Note that 菩薩 is a contraction of 菩提薩埵, which is a Chinese transliteration of the Sanskrit term “bodhisattva”.
3 For information on bodhisattvas, see: Robert E. Buswell, Jr. and Donald S. Lopez, Jr., The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press), 2013; A.L. Basham, “The Evolution of the Concept of the Bodhisattva” in Leslie S. Kawamura, The Bodhisattva Doctrine in Buddhism (Waterloo, Ontario, Canada: Published by Wilfrid Laurier University for the Canadian Corporation for Studies in Religion), 1981; Leslie S. Kawamura, The Bodhisattva Doctrine in Buddhism (Waterloo, Ontario, Canada: Published by Wilfrid Laurier University for the Canadian Corporation for Studies in Religion), 1981; Paul Williams, Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations, 2nd edition, in the Library of Religious Beliefs and Practices series (New York: Routledge), 2009; Chün-fang Yü, Kuan-Yin: The Chinese Transformation of Avalokitesvara (New York: Columbia University Press), 2001.
4 See: Angela Falco Howard et al., Chinese Sculpture in The Culture and Civilization of China series (New Haven: Yale University Press; and Beijing: Foreign Languages Press), 2006, p. 228.
5 For an illustrated sourcebook on Buddhist deities and their iconographic attributes, see: Sawa Ryūken (also known as Sawa Taka’aki), ed., Butsuzo zuten (Illustrated Dictionary of Buddhist Images), revised, enlarged edition (Tokyo: Yoshikawa Kōbunkan), 1962. 佐和隆研編, 《仏像図典》 (東京: 吉川弘文館), 增補版, 1962.
6 Compiled in India between the first century BC and the second century AD, the Lotus Sutra was first translated into Chinese in AD 286 by Dharmaraksa 竺法護 (born c. AD 233).
7 The Guanshiyin Pusa Pumenpin 觀世音菩薩普門品 is believed to have been compiled around AD 150.
8 Although first translated into Chinese in AD 147, the earliest translation of the Longer Sukhavativyuha Sutra to survive in the Chinese Buddhist Canon 大藏經 is one translated between AD 223 and 252 by Zhi Qian 支謙 (active c. AD 222–252).
9 Though its date of compilation is much disputed, the Shurangama Sutra had been translated into Chinese by the early eighth century, one account stating that it was translated in AD 705 by Shramana Paramiti, a monk from central India, and another account stating that it was translated in 713 by Master Huai Di 懷迪 and an unnamed Indian monk.
10 See: Osvald Sirén, Chinese Sculpture from the Fifth to the Fourteenth Century: Over 900 Specimens in Stone, Bronze, Lacquer and Wood, Principally from Northern China (London: E. Benn), 1925, pl. 396 A-B and pl. 397.
11 See: Denise Patry Leidy, Donna Strahan et al., Wisdom Embodied: Chinese Buddhist and Daoist Sculpture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art; and New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press), 2010, pp. 92-95, no. 15.
12 See: https://www.mfa.org/collections/object/altarpiece-with-amitabha-and-attendants-45930
13 See: Rene-Yvon Lefebvre d’Argence et al., Chinese, Korean and Japanese Sculpture in the Avery Brundage Collection (San Francisco: Asian Art Museum of San Francisco), 1974, pp. 192-193, no. 92, no. B60 B8+.
14 See: Colin Mackenzie, et al., Masterworks of Chinese Art: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (Kansas City, MO: Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art), 2011, pp. 80-81, no. 20 (34-10).
15 See: Leidy and Strahan, Wisdom Embodied, 2010, p. 179, no. A42 and A43.
16 See: Leidy and Strahan, Wisdom Embodied, 2010, pp. 143-146, no. 35.
17 See: Christie’s, Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art, 13-14 September 2018, sale NIRVANA-15706 (New York: Christie’s), 2018, pp. 64-89 (lots 1123 and 1124).
18 See: Leidy and Strahan, Wisdom Embodied, 2010, pp. 92-95, no. 15.
19 See: Leidy and Strahan, Wisdom Embodied, 2010, p. 179, no. A41.
20 See: https://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=253218&partId=1&searchText=1987,1221.1-2&page=1
21 See: Alan Priest, Chinese Sculpture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art), 1944, plates XCIV and XCV (cat. no. 50).
22 See: Leidy and Strahan, Wisdom Embodied, 2010, p. 179, no. A42 and A43.
23 See: Leidy and Strahan, Wisdom Embodied, 2010, p. 180, no. A44.

Christie's. Glories of Buddhist Art, Hong Kong, 29 May 2019