Standing gilt-bronze figures of Buddha Shakyamuni of this age, stature, and importance rarely appear on the market. Compare with a similarly-dated gilt-bronze figure of Avalokiteshvara, slightly larger in size than the present figure, from The Collection of Robert H. Ellsworth, sold at Christie’s New York, 17 March 2015, lot 25 (Fig. 1). See, also, a gilt-bronze figure of Padmapani from The Doris Wiener Collection, sold at Christie’s New York, 20 March 2012, lot 92 (Fig. 2). Also note a smaller, 14th century seated figure of a crowned Buddha, sold at Christie’s New York, 19 March 2014.
AN IMPORTANT GILT-BRONZE FIGURE OF BUDDHA
Standing Buddhas usually portray Shakyamuni, the historic Buddha, and are one of the most iconic images of South Asian Buddhism. Therefore, it is curious that they are a somewhat rare genre among the cast copper images of Nepal where bodhisattvas are more common. This example, one of the finest known, is both large in size and exquisitely modeled. It was on loan to The Metropolitan Museum of Art from March 1985 to June 1992 and displayed on the Great Hall Balcony. In order to understand the ways in which the earlier model has been subtly modified to manifest Nepalese taste and spirit, it is worth considering Indian Gupta prototypes.
There, the Buddha stands in a frontal static posture which is softened by a slight bend to his right leg at the knee, creating a subtle lilt to his posture. For example, see a 6th century standing Buddha from the Rockefeller Collection, now at Asia Society (see D. Leidy, Treasures of Asian Art: The Asia Society’s Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection, New York, 1994, pp. 28-30). If his head were not straight this would be a typical tribhanga, a thrice-bent posture where the legs, torso and head are shown in opposition. Typically, a long robe consisting of a wrapped length of fabric is draped across his broad shoulders and forms a loose opening below his neck. One end of the fabric is stretched across his left shoulder and then falls behind across his left shoulder blade. In some images, the outer robe falls across the torso and legs in a series of parallel folds that visually dematerializes the Buddha’s body, a feature that comes out of Mathura prototypes. In other examples, such as the sculpture from the Sarnath school, the fabric clings tightly to the body, materializing from the negative space of nearly equal size between the arms and body. For an example, see a 5th century sandstone figure of the Buddha at The British Museum (Asia OA 1880-6). In both models, a second garment appears beneath, whose upper hem can be seen through the first as a line above the hips and whose lower edge emerges just below the outer robe. Typically, his forearms are parallel to the ground and the left hand holds the gathered terminus of one end of his robe, while his right one is raised, palm forward, in a gesture to allay fear, or abhayamudra. Frilly pleats of fabric puddle near the lower hem of the robe below both of his raised forearms.
Our Nepalese Buddha, which undoubtedly derives from these earlier examples, departs from this canon in interesting ways. The figure displays a strong tribhanga, the head and hips tilts to his right, while the torso opposes them lilting to his left. The left forearm and hand are positioned higher than usual, so that the gathered robe end is practically at shoulder level. The Buddha’s right hand has dropped to his side, and is positioned in varadamudra, the boon bestowing gesture. The robe is more tightly cinched around the neck like a collar and there is no fold indicating that one end falls across his back. Instead, the emphasis has been placed on the billowing hem which gently wraps around the left arm, ending in a tuft of fabric held in the hand. The neckline and hems of the robes are articulated with a small border design of opposing, tilted lozenges. As the right hand is lowered and the curve of the body so exaggerated, the negative spaces on either side of the body are unequal, with the right side being more prominent. The outline of the bronze is more animated than that of its prototype. The robust chest and thighs are accentuated by the cinched waist, creating a form infused with youthful energy. For a sculpture with similar proportions, see a 14th century figure of Avalokiteshvara in the Victoria and Albert Museum (IM 239-1922). Details of the draped anatomy of the Buddha are more clearly visible: features that are usually obscured by the cloth such as the nipples, and belly button are clearly visible. The beautiful head has arched eyebrows, elongated eyes, hooked nose and pursed lips typical of the Early Malla style. The Buddha’s urna, third eye, is shown atypically as an engraved spiral rather than a raised dot.
The Nepalese sculptor has created a unique variation on one of the most important images in Buddhism. The large scale, beautiful casting and exquisite finishing are commensurate with the finest tradition of renowned Nepalese craftsmanship. The volumes of the figure are skillfully balanced to create a sensual and joyous image. The sculpture was originally gilded overall and repeated handling has, overtime, worn away areas of the gold, revealing the exquisitely rich copper patina underneath. The face largely retains its original surface treatment and the hair has blue pigment between the hair curls, surely a sign that this sculpture was venerated in Tibet for a time.
Steven M. Kossak
Former curator, Department of Asian Art,
Metropolitan Museum of Art
13th Century, Sculptures, Statues & Figures, figure, Gilt-bronze, Nepal, Buddha
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 15 March 1985 – 9 June 1992
Barcelona, Casa Asia, Divine Presence: Arts of India and the Himalayas, 27 March-22 June 2003, cat. no. 39
20 in. (50.8 cm.) high
J. Casey Singer, et al., Divine Presence: Arts of India and the Himalayas, Milan, 2003, p. 131, cat. no. 39
Collection of a private foundation, Europe, by 1985
Private collection, New York, acquired from Sotheby's New York, 16 September 1998, lot 62