Collection of Jean-Louis Melchior Sonnery de Fromental (1920-1995), acquired 1960s, by repute
Private French Collection, acquired from the above, 1980s
Collection FKH, USA, acquired from the above, 2012
Jean-Louis Melchior Sonnery de Fromental, heir to a textile fortune in Lyon, was a famous archaeologist and collector of Pre-Colombian art at a time when Indian sculpture was sold alongside Pre-Colombian material in London auctions of 'Primitive Art'. Sonnery went on to author several books on African and Pre-Colombian art with the French collector and aesthete Gerald Berjonneau between 1985 and 1995.
The standing Crowned Kurkihar Buddha is a canonical image in Buddhist art. The position of each finger is consistent across all its representations. One hand is held in abhaya mudra, and the other holds the inner hem of the cape-like robe. The delicate way it is held creates movement in the erect frontal image. The use of copper and silver inlay creates a compelling visual rhythm, directing the viewer's gaze upward across the elegant silhouetted frame, rising to a crescendo of profound sweetness and grace within the rounded face. The concept of the Crowned Buddha originated within the Pala period, spreading vastly throughout Southeast Asia, China, and the Himalayas, and survives today in important images, such as the Jowo Shakayamuni at the Jokhang, Lhasa, the most sacred Buddha image in Tibet.
The Sonnery Kurkihar Buddha is roughly contemporaneous with the Atisha period in Tibet (1st half of the 11th century), which initiated a two-century wave of cultural exchange wherein Indian bronzes were collected by Tibetans and served as the models of inspiration for their own early styles. Indicated by the remnants of a smoky black residue across its unexcavated patina, the Sonnery Kurkihar Buddha may have been one such high commission that travelled to Tibet during the Chidar.
Executed during the pinnacle of Pala sculpture's golden age, the Sonnery Kurkihar Buddha ranks among superior examples from the Kurkihar hoard in the Patna Museum, and surpasses almost all related Pala bronzes in Western museums. It is the most important Pala bronze to be auctioned in recent memory, indicative of Northeastern India's pivotal role in the spread of Buddhism throughout Asia.
Treasure of Pala Art: A Crowned Kurkihar Buddha
Essay by Luo Wenhua
Researcher at the Palace Museum, Beijing, August 2017
Pala art, also known as the Pala-Sena school, is an artistic style that flourished in Northeastern India during the Pala Dynasty. Originating in the region of Bengal, the Pala Empire was established as King Gopala conquered Magadha in 660, with its political center located at present day Bihar and Bangladesh. Spanning 500 years and 18 generations of rulers, this pro-Buddhist imperial power reached its height during the late-8th to early-9th century, and was dethroned by the Sena dynasty in the mid-12th century.
The final peak of Buddhist art in India, Pala art has far-reaching influence on neighboring regions – from Southeast Asia, the Himalayas, to China. With tremendous impact on Tibet, the Pala legacy is still reflected in Tibetan art till this day. From the 8th century to the 12th century, Pala artists created numerous magnificent works, many of which survived in museums in India, including the National Museum, New Delhi, the Indian Museum, Calcutta, and the Patna Museum.
Stone sculpture is probably the most prevalent and well-preserved form of Pala art, followed by metal sculptures. During the Muslim invasion in the late 12th century, many monasteries were destroyed and valuables looted. Large-size sculptures, that are too heavy to carry, were either ravaged or buried underground. Monks escaped one after another and brought with them smaller statues, scriptures, and ritual implements, many of which later survived in monasteries in Tibet and Burma. Preceding this were two centuries of cultural exchange within which many Tibetan pilgrims also brought sculptures from India back to Tibet. In the Potala Palace, Jokhang Monastery, Norbulingka, and Shakya Monastery, numerous works from the Pala period are still being worshiped today.
The majority of Pala art originated in the region of Magadha, where copper mines had been discovered in early centuries. As a result, the number of surviving bronze sculptures from this period greatly surpasses that of the Gupta (320-550) and Post-Gupta (500-750) periods. Excavated Pala bronzes were mostly from south Magadha, where the Nalanda monastery and Kurkihar are two of the most important sites.
Founded in the Gupta period, Nalanda monastery was a symbol of East Indian Buddhism, drawing far-reaching foreign pilgrims, till the 10th century. Xuanzang of the Tang Dynasty once studied in this monastery, and left detailed accounts of its architecture and monastic community. Among the 51 bronze sculptures excavated in Nalanda, 23 were from early Pala (before 10th century), mostly made of copper, bronze, and brass. Gilt copper sculptures were also been found in this site. While very popular in Nepal and Tibet, gilt copper pieces are rarely seen in India.
In 1930, nearly 150 metal sculptures, known as the 'Kurkihar hoard', were excavated in Kurkihar in the Gaya region of present day Bihar, all of which have been preserved in the Patna Museum, India. Among these excavated works, almost a hundred bear inscriptions, dating them to the 10th to 12th century, later than those found in Nalanda. Materials used in Kurkihar sculptures are mostly brass and bronze, rarely gilt copper. Also different from Nalanda bronzes is the frequent use of silver and copper inlay by Kurkihar artists. Inset stones and glasses would probably have also been popular decorations for works from both sites, though many of them are now missing from the surviving sculptures.1
The history of Kurkihar remains a point of dispute. The name "Kurkihar" bares similarity to the historical site "Kukkutarama Vihara", recorded by Xuanzang as a place close to Patiliputra (present day Patna), therefore the two may well refer to the same location. However, renowned archaeologist Alexander Cunningham associated Kurkihar with a famous Buddhist site Kukkutapada Mountain, where Mahakasyapa's body is said to be enshrined until the appearance of Maitreya. Not far from Bodh Gaya, Kukkutapada Mountain had also appeared in Xuanzang's account. While archeology has yet to prove if Cunningham's theory is correct, it would explain why such a rich hoard of sculptures were to be found at Kurkihar .2
Having discussed the important place of Pala sculpture and Kurkihar within the medieval Buddhist world, it is easier for us to attribute and appreciate the significance of the Sonnery Kurkihar Buddha.
The crowned and bejeweled Buddha image, adopted by the present sculpture, represents a deviation from the orthodox art tradition in which the Buddha is depicted without ornament. Many explanations have been given for its origin and meaning. Some believe it combines the appearances of Prince Siddhartha and the Buddha, while others consider it a unification of Buddha in sambhogakaya and nirmanakaya nature. Regardless of origin, the crowned Buddha image played an important role in late Eastern Indian Buddhism. Even the earth-touching Buddha statue in Bodh Gaya's Mahabodhi Temple had been worshiped with an added crown during the Pala period. The popularity of this image has been spread to many other regions, and its influence can be seen in sculpture and paintings of Tibetan Buddhism.
Stylistic features of the Sonnery Kurkihar Buddha are typical of the Pala period: Shakyamuni standing on a lotus base with great solemnity. His right hand in abhaya mudra symbolizing the dispelling of fear, while the left holding his robe. So soft and diaphanous is the robe that tightly wraps around his body, completely revealing his silhouette. The minimalist treatment of the garment – only depicting the drapery around his wrists and ankles – shows the persistence of the Sarnath style of the Gupta period.
Such a flavor of classicism is consistent with the 11th-12th century sculptures excavated in Kurkihar. These include two of the highest examples, very closely related to the Sonnery Buddha: a bronze of almost identical size dated 1044, and a monumental, meter-tall masterwork dated 1060. These bronzes in the Patna Museum demonstrate the larger shrine that the present sculpture's double-lotus base would have inserted into.
His richly decorated three-leaf crown and its inward-tilting leaves are indicative of a later date during the Pala period. Generally speaking, the crown design of the period becomes more complex through time. For instance, most of the crowns in early Pala consist of three simple leaves, but by the 11th-12th century, decorative elements resembling flower branches were added between the crown leaves, such as in the case of the present sculpture. The inward-tilting crown leaves are reflected in Tibetan sculptures made during the beginning of the "Chidar" (Second Diffusion of Buddhism from India to Tibet, 11th-13th century). The flat ribbons falling behind his ears curl upwards, typical of Pala style of the 11th-12th century. Silver and copper inlays were richly applied to his crown, urna, eyes, lips, necklace, and along the hemline of his robe, consistent with the excavated 11th-12th-century Kurkihar hoard.
Not only of an impressive size, the figure is also in good condition and with a desirable patina. Rarely seen in private hands, this Kurkihar style bronze Buddha is a masterpiece with great historical and aesthetic value.
1 Ulrich von Schroeder, Indo-Tibetan Bronzes, Hong Kong: Visual Dharma Publications, Ltd, 2008. pp.233-250; Susan Huntington, The "Pala-Sena" Schools of Sculpture, Leiden, 1984. pp.134-149: "Metal Sculpture of Bihar".
2 T. Watters, On Yuan Chwang's Travels in India, London, 1904-05.
39 cm (15 3/8 in.) high