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Treasures of Chinese Buddhist Sculpture

Sotheby's New York

10:30 AM., March 20, 2018

Sale 9974

Aspara 201

Lot 201, Limestone relief of an aspara, Northwestern Wei Dynasty, 23 1/8 inches high

By Carter B. Horsley

This March 20, 2018 of Chinese Buddhist Sculptures contains only four lots.

Lot 201 is an "exceptional and rare limestone relief carving of an Aspara" from the Northern Wei Dynasty.  It is 23 1/8 inches high.  It is from the collection of Tai Jun Tse, who died in 1992 and it was sold at Sotheby's in Hong Kong in 1997 when it was also exhibited at the National Museum of History in Taipei.

In a catalogue essary on "Dignity and Grace: A Rare Northern Wei Aspara Relief," Regina Krahl provides the following commentary about Lot 201:

"This dignified image of a kneeling celestial being from the Jingyatang collection is moving in its serene expression and unconventional in its iconography. Its three-quarter profile rendering is characteristic of the stylistic language of Northern Wei (386-534) stone carvers, but it is difficult to find a comparable image of such sculptural quality, or any relief of this period that so successfully indicates three-dimensionality. In spite of close stylistic similarities with rock reliefs from China’s main cave temples, particularly those at Longmen and Gongxian, both in Henan province and both commissioned by the Northern Wei imperial family, it cannot be directly attributed to either of those caves. Both these gigantic imperial sculpture projects of course were determinant for the development of Buddhist sculpture and influenced rock carvings as well as free-standing steles of the period, and the present figure clearly stands in this tradition. 

"Although the headdress and pose of the current figure suggest an apsara, its overall rendering deviates from the common depiction of apsaras known from this period. Apsaras (Chinese feitian, ‘flying in heaven’) tend to be angel-like female figures hovering in mid-air around the Buddha or Bodhisattvas. While they do not have a strong liturgical function in Buddhism, they play an important part in Buddhist imagery, where – depicted as graceful, enchanting ladies playing musical instruments or performing dancing motions – they generally serve as enhancement of the heavenly realm. Indian prototypes clearly served as models, such as the famous early depictions of apsaras from the wall paintings of the Ajanta caves in Aurangabad district, Maharashtra state, created in the 5th/6th centuries and earlier, whose celestial singers and dancers evoke sensual pleasures for divine beings.

"Chinese representations generally conform to this image of apsaras as alluring, angelic creatures. The present stone carving, however, represents a gracious and divine, gender-neutral Buddhist image and thus offers a completely different facet of an apsara: its demure pose and pious gesture depict a serious, devout stance that is unusual in this context and may represent a more Sinicized version of these celestial beings. The composed, chaste manner in which this apsara is depicted reminds us of the humble donor figures often shown kneeling, in adoration of the Buddha, rather than the radiant celestial nymphs floating in mid-air. This rendering is further emphasized by the distinct double halo behind the head, which underlines the significance of the spiritual message. 

"This rendering appears to be extremely rare and no closely related carving appears to be recorded. One similar figure can, however, be seen on the rear wall of the Central Binyang cave, one of the main caves at Longmen near Luoyang, Henan province, which was carved to the order of the Northern Wei Emperor Xuanwu (r. 500-515) and completed in 523. On the aureole surrounding the main Buddha, next to the figure of Ananda, we see an apsara, very similary attired and depicted in the same pose, but carved in a very different style, in more shallow relief; see Zhongguo meishu quanji: Diaosu bian [Complete series on Chinese art: Sculpture section], 11: Longmen shiku diaoke [Sculptures of the Longmen caves], Shanghai, 1988, pl. 40....

"The sensitive, softly rounded carving style, the three-quarter profile rendering and the subliminal smile of the elongated face, created by a deeply carved groove around the mouth, are much closer to the stone reliefs of the Gongxian caves, also in Henan province and equally commissioned by the Northern Wei imperial family, under Emperor Xiaoming (r. 516-528). Although no closely related image is known from Gongxian either, and the workmanship of the present image is more elaborate and detailed than that of related figures at Gongxian, with its scarves draped in two loops it is nevertheless reminiscent of some of the musicians depicted there....

"Compare also a similar head, published in An Exhibition of Chinese Stone Sculptures, C.T. Loo & Co., New York, 1940, cat. no. 15, subsequently sold in these rooms, 17th September 2003, lot 16, and attributed to Gongxian, illustrated in Gongxian shiku [Cave temples of Gongxian], Beijing, 2005, p. 193, fig. 13; and another Northern Wei head fragment, attributed to the Binyang cave at Longmen, published in Yamaguchi korekushion Chūgoku sekibutsu ten [Exhibition of Chinese stone Buddhas from the Yamaguchi collection], Osaka City Museum of Fine Arts, Osaka, 1979, cat. no. 71.

"Gongxian figures also show similar curls on either side of the shoulders, but generally only two on each side, see Gongxian shiku, op.cit., pp. 194-7, figs 14, 17-22 and passim. The plump lotus buds, symbols of purity in Buddhism, which adorn the image, filling empty space around the halo, are unusual to find in this context. Lotus flowers are sometimes held by Bodhisattvas and can be seen, for example, in the Binglingsi caves in Yongjing county, Gansu province, but are untypical of Longmen or Gongxian....

"J.T. Tai (1910-1992) was one of the major Chinese art dealers of the 20th century, who started working at his uncle’s antiques shop in Wuxi, Jiangsu province, from around the late 1920s, opened his own shop in Shanghai in the 1930s and moved to New York in 1950 to open a gallery there. For decades he remained one of the major suppliers of Americas great collectors, among them Avery Brundage and Arthur M. Sackler."

It has an estimate of $1,200,000 to $1,500,000. It failed to sell.

Stele  202

Lot 202, Inscribed and dated "Huanghuashi" limestone Buddhist stele, Eastern Wei Dynasty, dated Xinghe Third Year corresponding to 541, 17 inches high

Lot 202, Inscribed and dated "Huanghuashi" limestone Buddhist stele, Eastern Wei Dynasty, dated Xinghe Third Year corresponding to 541.  It is 17 inches high.

The catalogue entry provides the following commentary:

"Richly carved with a vibrant scene of veneration, the present carving represents the phenomenon of the emergence of stone steles as an important Buddhist sculptural medium within Chinese history. It stems from the dynamic growth of Buddhism in the 5th century, which saw the formation of Buddhist devotional societies throughout China. These groups sparked a burst of creativity in the production of religious art as devotees fervently commissioned steles to be made, as such acts of personal devotion or accumulation of merits were linked to their future life. Subsequently, a variety of regional styles flourished in the 6th century, distinct from that of famous monumental cave temple carvings.

"Since the 3rd century BC, the use of steles as symbolic monuments has endured throughout Chinese history. Initially utilized for commemorative purposes, these monuments extolled the political and philosophical values of the reigning party and were erected in public spaces as emblems of a community’s identity and to foster societal unity. According to Dorothy C. Wong in Chinese Steles. Pre-Buddhist and Buddhist Use of a Symbolic Form, Honolulu, 2004, p. 43, the origins of Buddhist steles can be traced to two events that occurred during the last two decades of the fifth century: the emergence of Buddhist devotional societies and the first espousal of tablets for Buddhist use. These events are documented at the Buddhist cave temple sites, Yungang and Longmen (386-534). 

"Buddhist devotional groups played an important role in the development of regional religious art. During the Northern Wei dynasty, state-sponsorship of Buddhism enabled the rapid spread of the religion throughout Northern China. Lay Buddhists organised themselves into voluntary groups and associated with local temples. These groups were among the first to adopt stone tablets to record their faith, erecting ‘Buddhist steles that served as monuments commemorating the collective groups’ religious, social, and territorial, identity’ (ibid.). By the 6th century, these groups became the chief patrons of steles, with a smaller number sponsored by individual donors and families, such as the present piece. The popularity of steles is attributable to the easy accessibility of the medium and its relatively small size. These two factors gave rise to a multitude of regional workshops, many of which developed their own style using the monumental cave temple carvings as a basis. 

"The present carving belongs to a select group of sculptures which are carved from a distinct yellow-flecked limestone, which includes a related stele, dated to 538, in the Yurinkan Museum, Kyoto, published in Yurinkan Seika, Kyoto, 1975, pl. 19,....Shared characteristics between these two steles include a similarity in composition and the use of high-relief carving to create an animated scene, particularly in the modeling of the apsaras flying above the central figure. The sweet expressions of the figures as well as the fullness of their bodies and style of drapery are also strikingly similar, which suggests they may have been created by the same hand.

"This stele is iconographically complex: the central Buddha, in this period probably Shakyamuni, has two small Buddhas sitting on top of his lotus-shaped halo, possibly as reference to the Buddhist trinity. He holds his right hand up in abhaya mudra, which signifies reassurance, while the left hand is held in varada mudra, symbolising compassion and charity. Together the hand gestures convey to worshippers that they may approach and receive the blessing of the Buddha. He is attended by bodhisattvas, lions, monks and worshipping figures. Below, two monks kneel to either side of a squatting demonic figure supporting a boshan-form censer. A celestial quality is captured through the five apsaras playing instruments that frame the entire scene as they hover above. One of the Eight Supernatural beings (babuzhong) in the Buddhist pantheon, according to the Lotus Sutra, apsaras are the protectors of the Buddha and of doctrine. Appearing on Chinese Buddhist images as early as 420 in the cave temple of Binglingsi, Yongjing county, these deities grew in popularity in the late Northern Wei and Eastern Wei periods (see the catalogue to the exhibition Return of the Buddha: The Qingzhou Discoveries, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2002, p. 84).

"As seen on this stele, the development of Buddhist sculpture of the Eastern Wei can be described as a slight modification of iconography and style from previous periods. The figures are fuller in form, which reveals the growing interest in form over line, and a masterful ability to incorporate the play of light in the overall composition through high-relief modeling. This effect is most noticeable on the apsaras, the curves of their bodies and flowing scarves creating a wonderful rhythmic quality which creates a lively interplay of light and shade that gives it a flickering quality. A limestone fragment of similarly carved apsara, in the Jingyatang collection, is published in Bore baoxiang Jingyatang cang Zhongguo fojia yishu /The Treasures of Chinese Buddhist Sculptures, Taipei, 2016, pl. 7.

"Due to the regional nature of stele production, carving styles of the brief Eastern Wei period vary noticeably; compare related dated examples, such as a larger limestone example with similar leaf-shaped mandorla, dated to 537, attributed to Hebei province, from the John Huntington Art and Polytechnic Trust and now in the Cleveland Museum of Art, included in the exhibition The Footsteps of the Buddha. An Iconic Journey from India to China, University Museum and Art Gallery, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 1988, cat. no. 93; and an alabaster stele of similar size, but carved with some openwork in the background, dated to 544, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, included in the exhibition Chinese Buddhist Sculpture from the Wei through the T’ang Dynasties, National Museum of History, Taipei, 1983, cat. no. 11. A similar stele depicting the Buddhist triad and apsaras, but missing the base, in the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, is included in Liu Yang, ‘The Discovery of Mass: a footnote to the stylistic and iconographic innovation in Chinese Buddhist sculpture’, Orientations, September 2000, fig. 2."

It has an estiimate of $1,200,000 to $1,500,000.  It sold for $1,355,000.


Lot 203, Figure of Bodhistattva, limestone, Northern Qi Dynasty, 37 1/2 inches high

Lot 203 is a limestone figure of Bodhistattva from the Northern Qi Dynasty.  It is 37 1/2 inches high.
The catalogue entry provides the following commentary:
"The Northern Qi dynasty (550-577) was one of the most vibrant periods in the history of Chinese art, both religious and secular, as its openness towards foreigners, their ideas, beliefs and goods, immensely enriched the local cultural climate. Buddhist sculpture experienced perhaps its most glorious moment in this period. While in the Northern Wei period (386-534), manners of depiction had only just been adapted from their south and central Asian prototypes, in the Northern Qi they had matured and developed into native styles. Yet, they still emanate the seriousness of strong religious beliefs and had not yet moved towards the pleasant and more decorative imagery of the Tang dynasty (618-907). The present sculpture is one of the classic bodhisattva images of the period, when sculptors were less interested in rendering the three-dimensional physical side of a deity figure than in capturing its spiritual message through delicate facial features and gestures. 

"Bodhisattva figures of related type became popular through the patronage of the Northern Wei imperial family, who commissioned the carving of rock caves in Longmen and Gongxian, both in Henan province, in the first quarter of the 6th century, which typically show seated or standing Buddhas flanked by two bodhisattvas. Besides these massive stone carvings in cave temples, many free-standing steles, also often with two such bodhisattva figures on either side of a central Buddha statue, were commissioned in that century, which followed the artistic language introduced by these grand Buddhist cave sculpture projects, which exerted an overwhelming influence on Chinese sculpture of the period in general. 

"This majestic figure of the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara from the Jingyatang collection stands out because of its fine, even facial features and the attention paid to its elegant, decoratively stylized crown and garment with loose scarves and knotted ribbons. The low-relief carving style and almost complete disregard for the shape of the body under the garments is characteristic of the Northern Qi period. Although many features were introduced to Buddhist stone carving in the preceding Northern and Eastern Wei (534-550) periods, stylistic variants would naturally have been introduced by locally working sculptors. 

"Although the present figure fits neatly into the sculptural tradition of the mid-6th century, close comparisons are hard to find. The depiction of the long scarves hanging down in two loose overlapping loops in front of the figure’s knees is particularly unusual. Although bodhisattvas of this period tend to be similarly dressed, the two scarves are mostly crossed near the waist and inserted through a ring-shaped disc. 

"Matsubara, who published this bodhisattva figure in his ground-breaking study of Buddhist sculpture in 1966, compares the style to that of a stele with a seated Avalokitesvara figure of the Northern Qi period from Jincheng in Shanxi province, about a hundred miles north of Longmen and Gongxian, see Matsubara Saburō, Chūgoku Bukkyō hokiza shi kenkyū/Chinese Buddhist Sculpture: A Study Based on Bronze and Stone Statues Other Than Works from Cave Temples, Tokyo, 1966, p. 272, fig. 245. 

"In its overall shallow relief treatment of the body, with only the hands protruding in higher relief, this figure shows similarities to many bodhisattvas that flank Buddhas at Gongxian, which are depicted with similarly parted hair, rudimentarily indicated under similar crowns decorated with lotus petals and circular jewel-like discs, with a similar mandorla behind the head, and dressed in similar garments, although they differ considerably in detail....

"Related bodhisattva figures, with similar crowns and garments, but also with more stylized garment folds, can also be seen at the Longmen caves, for example, on the north wall of the Putai cave, which dates from the Northern Wei period, see Longmen shiku [Longmen caves], Beijing, 1980, pl. 105. 

"The sharply delineated features of the face with its narrow, almond-shaped eyes are reminiscent of the large seated Eastern Wei bodhisattva figure in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, illustrated in Osvald Sirén, Chinese Sculpture from the Fifth to the Fourteenth Century, London, 1925 (reprint Bangkok, 1998), pl. 112 and in Matsubara Saburō, Chūgoku Bukkyō chōkoku shiron [Historical survey of Chinese Buddhist sculpture], Tokyo, 1995, vol. 1, pl. 243...."

The lot has an estimate of $600,000 to $800,000. It sold for $855,000.


Lot 204, Head of Avalokiteshvara, limestone, Sui Dynasty, 16 1/4 inches high

Lot 204 is a fine limestone head of Avalokiteshvara from the Sui Dynasty.  It is 16 1/4 inches high.

The catalogue entry provides the following commentary:

"The Sui Dynasty emperors used Buddhist faith and major building projects, including the construction of pagodas, temples, and religious statuary, as means of unifying an empire that had been fragmented for over three centuries. At the same time, they led expansionist campaigns along China’s western and northeastern borders. These actions significantly impacted Chinese Buddhist practice in several ways which are reflected in religious art of the period. For instance, the political and social turmoil that accompanied dynastic changes in the 6th century led to the rise of a variant form of Pure Land Buddhism, in which devotion to Amitabha (or a bodhisattva, such as Avalokiteshvara) allowed adherents to be reborn in Sukhavati, the Western Paradise of the Buddha Amitabha. Consequently, images of bodhisattvas proliferated in the Sui dynasty, as evidenced by the present and numerous contemporaneous examples. The Sui emperors’ religio-political agenda also led to increased communication across eastern Eurasia, which contributed to the transmission of Buddhist concepts and artistic styles from South and Central Asia into China and from China to Korea and Japan. This had the concurrent effects of diversifying the visual vocabulary of each region of the empire, while preserving established characteristics in production.

"The present sculpture is sumptuously carved with the attributes of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, known in China as Guanyin. The head is characterized by fleshy features that harmonize the Sui dynasty’s emergent trend toward naturalism with the inherited idealized forms that conventionally conveyed the purity of Buddhist subjects. Here, Avalokiteshvara’s broad arched brows and the sweep of the lowered lids lead the eye down the straight nose to the plump lips and slightly upturned chin, before following the softened jawline to the plump cheeks and returning upward to the crown of the head. The full oval face is counterbalanced above by a tall diadem richly carved with an image of the Buddha, floral features, wave-like borders, and streaming tassels in a combination of high relief and openwork detail. Even in its opulence, the diadem follows the standard Sui formula of a three-sided structure with aesthetic attention given to its band. These traits suggest that the head belongs to a mature phase of Sui artistic production, when craftsmen synthesized styles from within and beyond China into graceful yet dynamic compositions that expressed the transcendental majesty of the Buddhist subject.

"Excavations at Qingzhou (Shandong) have yielded Northern Qi and Sui limestone standing bodhisattvas, detailed with polychrome pigments and gilding, that similarly bear full, oval faces crowned by intricate diadems with petaled lobes, pendent tassels, and articulated bands, suggesting a geographic and cultural origin for this style of carving; for a Sui dynasty figure of Guanyin from Longxing si, Qingzhou see Denise Patry Leidy and Donna Strahan, Wisdom Embodied: Chinese Buddhist and Daoist Sculpture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2010, fig. 13; for a related Northern Qi bodhisattva, see Buddhist Sculpture: New Discoveries from Qingzhou, Shandong Province, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 2001, cat. no. 69. Similar traits, particularly with respect to the openwork tri-lobed diadem and elaborate diadem sash, are also seen on a Northern Qi precedent, probably from Western Shanxi or Shaanxi province, dating to around 575, included in the exhibition Chinese Buddhist Sculpture from the Wei through the T’ang Dynasties, National Museum of History, Taipei, 1983, cat. no. 18. In the subsequent Sui dynasty, these decorative elements developed more fluid lines and the bodhisattva’s face relaxed into a gentler expression, as seen in the carved figure of Guanyin in the Detroit Institute of Arts (acc. no. 26.128) dated by inscription to 581, and attributed to Shaanxi or Henan province by Osvald Sirén in Chinese Sculpture from the Fifth to the Fourteenth Century, vols 1 and 4, New York, 1925, pl. 305. Related sculptures in the Cleveland Museum of Art (acc. no. 1962.162), the Metropolitan Museum of Art (acc. no. 42.152.5a, b), and the Arthur M. Sackler Museum at Harvard University (acc. no. 1943.53.43) represent the next phase in the Sui Buddhist sculpture wherein the bodhisattva’s features soften, reflecting a more naturalistic quality, and the rhythmic carving of the elaborate diadem serves to exalt the deity as a spiritual exemplar. These are precisely the qualities seen in the present example, suggesting that the sculpture was carved around or following the turn of the 7th century. This approach to figuration continued through the end of the Sui dynasty, as evidenced by a bronze standing bodhisattva with a nearly identical diadem and face shape, published in Saburo Matsubara, Chinese Buddhist Sculpture: A Study Based on Bronze and Stone Statues other than from Cave Temples, Tokyo, 1966, pl. 233.

Stone sculptures of the Sui dynasty are rare. A closely related carved limestone head dated to the Sui dynasty and attributed to Shanxi province, formerly with C. T. Loo, was exhibited in Buddhist Sculpture from Ancient China, J. J. Lally & Co., New York, 2017, cat. no. 10. A polychrome-painted limestone head of a bodhisattva, with a similar face shape but more elaborate coiffure and simplified hair ornaments, sold in our Hong Kong rooms, 5th April 2016, lot 2871."

The lot has an estimate of $400,000 to $600,000.  It failed to sell.

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