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Magnificent and Extremely Rare Polychrome Wood and Gesso Sculpture for Sale at Sotheby's
A Magnificent and extremely rare polychrome wood and gesso Sculpture of Guhyasadhana Avalokitesvara Ming Dynasty, Xuande period. Overall height 22 in., 55.9 cm. Estimate: 1,400,000—1,600,000 USD. Photo: Courtesy Sotheby's.

NEW YORK.- Sotheby's will auction a magnificent and extremely rare polychrome wood and gesso Sculpture of Guhyasadhana Avalokitesvara Ming Dynasty, Xuande period, at its Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art including Chinese and Japanese Art from The Collection of Frieda and Milton Rosenthal on September 16.

Although the iconography of the present statue is drawn from the Tibetan Buddhist pantheon, the sculpture of Guhyasadhana Avalokitesvara (Tib: Spyan-ras-gzigs gsan-grub) is Chinese and was created in the early Ming dynasty, a period that is in many respects defined by the Imperial patronage of Tibetan Buddhism.

Sculptural details in common with the renowned gilt bronzes of the time allow the period within the dynasty to be determined with some accuracy to the Yongle (1403-1424) or Xuande (1426-1435) reigns, with the Xuande being the most likely period of manufacture: for example, the long flowing dhoti falling in loose folds of cloth over the legs of the deity and spreading generously onto the lotus pedestal is seen in the majority of the bronzes, and the raised textile patterns of the dhoti include classic early Ming motifs, as seen on some bronze examples.

The style of the bodhisattva jewelry of these gilt bronzes is largely consistent throughout the corpus, with bracelets usually shown as a single band edged with pearls and supporting a jeweled element, see for example the bracelets of the Yongle gilt bronze, also depicting Guhyasadhana Avalokitesvara, in fig 1. However, the present gilt wood Guhyasadhana Avalokitesvara displays a variant of this common bracelet type and instead shows multiple bands of pearls, the uppermost band supporting numerous jeweled elements. This rare departure in stylistic detail is encountered, in identical format, on an important Xuande marked gilt copper alloy Amitayus, fig. 2. Furthermore the body jewelry of the present sculpture, consisting of a double row of tightly-strung beads with a single strand of larger and more widely spaced jewels running between them, while highly unusual for the period, is identical to the Xuande Amitayus. In addition, the foliate flourish on the sides of the lotus petals of the pedestal of the Guhyasadhana Avalokitesvara, while not at all common in the Yongle/Xuande oeuvre, is identical to that seen on the Xuande Amitayus.

Some, but not all, of these variant details are seen in just one other early Ming Buddhist bronze, a Yongle marked Avalokitesvara now in a private collection, see Amy Heller, Tibetan Art, Milan, 1999, pl. 90, thus raising the possibility of a Yongle date for the Guhyasadhana Avalokitesvara. However it is the exceptionally close comparison in so many details with the dated Amitayus ( fig. 2) that allows the attribution of the Xuande period to the Guhyasadhana Avalokitesvara.

The full and imposing physiognomy of the Xuande Amitayus is also remarkably similar to the present Guhyasadhana Avalokitesvara. The eyes of both sculptures are markedly narrowed with a linear symmetry, whereas those of the variant Yongle Avalokitesvara are a more opened almond shape and slanted down towards the nose, as they are indeed in the majority of Yongle bronzes. There is close similarity in the treatment of the hair in both the Xuande Amitayus and the Guhyasadhana Avalokitesvara with the fringe below the crown band arranged in spaced curls, and locks of hair falling to the shoulders in thick curling tresses.

The majority of Tibeto-Chinese Yongle and Xuande Buddhist sculpture depicts the deities wearing diaphanous, un-patterned robes, while both deities in the Guhyasadhana Avalokitesvara group are dressed in deeply textured cloth decorated with classic early Ming motifs. However, a small number of bronzes from the early Ming period, depicting both male and female deities, have very similar robe decoration to the Guhyasadhana Avalokitesvara, including a Yongle marked Shyama Tara now in the Berti Aschmann Foundation at the Rietberg Museum, see Helmut Uhlig, On the Path to Enlightenment, 1995, p. 146, no. 92; a Yongle marked Avalokitesvara now in the Chang Foundation, see James Spencer, Buddhist images in Gilt Metal, Taiwan, 1993, p. 77, cat. no. 31, and a Yongle marked Virupa in the Potala collection, see Ulrich von Schroeder, Buddhist Sculptures in Tibet, Hong Kong, 2001, pp. 1290-1, Pl. 363B-C.

Guhyasadhana, literally 'esoteric practice', Avalokitesvara is included in the Tibetan pantheon "The Three Hundred Icons", see Lokesh Chandra, Buddhist Iconography, New Delhi, 1991, p. 709, no. 2278(75), but there seems to be no recorded Tibetan sculpture depicting this particular form of the popular bodhisattva. However, one further Chinese example is known, the exquisite Yongle marked Guhyasadhana Avalokitesvara now in the Royal Tropical Institute Museum, Amsterdam.

That this Yongle bronze representation and the present Guhyasadhana Avalokitesvara from the Xuande period appear to be the only two recorded sculptures of the deity of any period, from either Tibet or China, it would seem to suggest that the cult of the deity was more popularly practised in the Tibeto-Chinese Buddhist establishment, and even then possibly confined to the Yongle and Xuande periods. After Xuande there was less Chinese involvement with Tibetan Buddhism until the resurgent interest in the early Qing dynasty (1644-1911), and no examples of the deity appear to be recorded from this later period. Future scholarship will no doubt throw more light on this seemingly divergent pattern of Tibetan Buddhist devotion in China in the early Ming period. Although it is known that the Xuande emperor maintained contact with Tibet, he did not have the same priest/patron relationship that the Yongle emperor, and the Yuan dynasty rulers before him, had with Tibetan religious hierarchs. Instead he continued the liberalism and scholarly pursuits favored by his father Hongxi (r. 1424-1426), replacing the expansionist policies of his grandfather, the Yongle emperor.

Patronage of monasteries in Tibet was much reduced in the Xuande reign. Buddhist sculpture was thus made more for use in Chinese temples rather than as gifts to Tibetan institutions as was so frequent in the Yongle period. There is consequently considerably less recorded Xuande Tibeto-Chinese Buddhist sculpture in contrast to the relatively large output of the Yongle period. Compared with the small corpus of Xuande Buddhist bronzes, even fewer wood temple sculptures depicting Tibetan deities have survived from the period. However, what is almost certainly a companion piece to the Guhyasadhana Avalokitesvara, again an esoteric form of a popular deity, is now held at the Pacific Asia Museum, Pasadena, and depicts the "Long Life" deity Amitayus engaged with his prajna, fig 3. Due to the esoteric nature of these two deities, their original location would have been a chapel for private devotion, certainly not a public place of worship, and most likely in close proximity to the heart of Tibetan Buddhist activity in China, the Imperial court at Beijing.

Polychrome wood sculpture had long been a preferred medium for temple decoration in China, as seen for example in the relatively large number of surviving Song period (960-1279) sculptures of Guanyin, known for their elegant and regal seated postures. This sculptural tradition may now be seen to have continued through the early Ming period with the evidence of this rare Xuande wood figure of Guhyasadhana Avalokitesvara. Like its predecessors from the Song dynasty the Guhyasadhana Avalokitesvara is imbued with grace and spirituality, and offers a glimpse of restrained splendour within the Xuande emperor's Buddhist temples. Avalokitesvara's intense and compassionate gaze into the eyes of his prajna embodies the essence of the bodhisattva, those enlightened beings who chose not to take their places in nirvana but remain to watch over samsara's sentient beings. Avalokitesvara, the Compassionate One, the Lord of the World, embraces his prajna to consummate the ultimate union of Wisdom and Compassion.

David Weldon

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