A Gilt-Bronze Seated Figure of Avalokiteshvara with Hidden Treasures

Chinese Buddhist sculpture has been produced throughout the history of Buddhism in China. They come in rich and diverse representations, offering us a peep into the religion and culture of the past. Even if you are not familiar with the history or the religious practice, you can still find the beauty of Buddhist sculpture. In this article, I am going to introduce a gilt-bronze seated figure with a history of almost 600 years. The beautifully executed sculpture is undoubtedly a treasure itself, but inside the figure, there are hidden treasures as well.

This sculpture represents the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Bodhisattvas are benevolent beings who have attained enlightenment but have selflessly postponed entry into nirvana in order to assist other sentient beings in gaining enlightenment.

The identity of Avalokiteshvara is indicated by the presence in the headdress of a small seated image of the Buddha Amitabha since Avalokiteshvara is the only bodhisattva in whose crown or headdress Amitabha appears.

In addition to the image of the Buddha Amitabha atop the head, the bodhisattva typically holds such iconographic attributes as a lotus blossom, a vase, a ritual kundika vessel for holy water, or is portrayed in association with a willow branch, a Buddhist symbol of healing, both physical and spiritual.

Bodhisattvas are generally depicted with a single head, two arms, and two legs, though they may be shown with multiple heads and limbs, depending upon the individual bodhisattva and the particular manifestation as described in the sutras.

Bodhisattvas are represented with long hair often arranged in a tall coiffure, or bun, atop the head and often with long strands of hair cascading over the shoulders. A crown sometimes surrounds the topknot, like the present sculpture. Bodhisattvas wear ornamental scarves, dhotis of rich silk brocade, and a wealth of jewellery that typically includes necklaces, armlets, bracelets, and anklets.

The present sculpture comes from the collection of Soame Jenyns, the former Keeper of Asian Art at the British Museum. It dates to the reign of Emperor Xuande (1426-1435) during the Ming dynasty in China.  Both the Emperor Xuande and his grandfather, Emperor Yongle, were supporters of Buddhist art and sculpture, and Chinese Buddhist art with Tibetan influence evolved considerably during the period covered by their reigns.

The bodhisattva’s broad shoulders, smooth torso, and long legs derive from Indian traditions. By contrast, the large circular earrings; the broad, somewhat square face with high cheekbones and elegant, curved eyebrows; and the prolific use of inlays stem from Nepali and Tibetan traditions.

Engraved to the top of the base of the sculpture is Emperor Xuande’s reign mark ‘Da Ming Xuande nian shi’, which translates as ‘Bestowed during the Xuande era of the Great Ming [dynasty]’.

Figures like this gilt-bronze bodhisattva would have been consecrated in a Buddhist ceremony during which dedicatory objects were placed inside. Such hollow-cast sculptures were then sealed, with the base plate kept in place by a combination of friction and red wax.

Radiographic scans of this seated figure reveal the auspicious objects that have been placed within it, which includes a short scroll, possibly from a sutra; various fragments of textiles; and what seem to be four small beads. They are likely to have remained sealed since the 15th century.

The figure of Avalokiteshvara will be offered at Christie’s Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art auction in London.

A Rare and Finely-Cast Gilt-Bronze Seated Figure of Avalokiteshvara
Xuande Six-Character Incised Mark and of the Period (1426-1435)

Lot no.: 26
Height: 26cm
Collection of the late Soame Jenyns (1904-1976), then by descent within the family.
Estimate: £150,000 - 250,000

Auction details

Auction house: Christie’s London
Sale: Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art
2 November 2018|10am - 4:30pm
3 November 2018|12pm - 5pm
4 November 2018|12pm - 8pm
5 November 2018|9am - 4:30pm
Auction date:
6 November 2018|10:30am (lot 1-153)
6 November 2018|2pm (lot 154-322)