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Metal sculptures of the Tibetan Imperial period
by Yury Khokhlov
article © Yury Khokhlov and Asianart.com
January 24, 2013
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The fully developed production of metal sculptures during the Tibetan Imperial Period (600-842 AD) has been extensively documented by Tibetan historical sources[1Ulrich, Von Schroeder. Buddhist Sculptures in Tibet (Hong Kong: Visual Dharma Publications Ltd, 2001): 736- 739.]. However, only few Tibetan statues have been attributed to that time and stylistic features of Buddhist art at this stage remain debatable.
2Marylin M., Rhie. Interrelationships between the Buddhist Art of China and the Art of India and Central Asia from 618‐755 AD. (Supplemento n.54 agli ANNALI, vol.48, fasc.1). Napples: Instituto Universario Orientale,1988.]. Although these connections exist through whole Tang period, she concentrated her research on the early and flourishing Tang when they are particularly intense. Probably due to an absence of published Tibetan material at the time of the research, Tibet was not included in her work. However, the Tibetan Empire was one of the key figures in the region and early Buddhist art in Tibet should have been in consonant with discussed interrelations as well. In the light of the scarcity of securely datable artifacts from the Imperial period, comparative stylistic analysis of Tibetan objects in connection with datable contemporary examples from neighboring countries can be helpful for reconstructing major stylistic trends at the early stage of Buddhist art in Tibet.On the basis of two published sculptures attributed to the Tibetan Imperial period and two examples from my own collection, my research provides the additional data and highlights the key features of sculptural art during the Tibetan Imperial period. The study was inspired by a paper by Marylin Rhie Interrelationships between the Buddhist Art of China and the Art of India and Central Asia from 618-755 AD (1988) where she reveals connections between Buddhist art of Northern India, Afghanistan, Hindu-Kush, Swat, Kashmir, Central Asian Kingdoms and China at the time of the Tang dynasty [
3Marylin M., Rhie et al. Wisdom and Compassion: The Sacred Art of Tibet (New York; London: Harry N. Abrams, 1996):416.], though such an early date was called to question by some scholars in later publications [4Sotheby's catalog, 25 of March 1999, lot. 63 (a rare Tibetan copper figure of Bodhisattva 11/12 century).].A standing Bodhisattva (fig. 1) published by Rhie and Thurman in Wisdom and Compassion: The Sacred Art of Tibet was the first sculpture attributed to the Yarlung dynasty[
The Bodhisattvas in fig. 1 and fig. 2 are portrayed in a stately manner with the right hip slightly outward and the left leg slightly bent which creates the impression that they are ready to step forward. Both are made according to Nepalese mode, yet some decorations belong to different artistic traditions. They are hollow cast and have a rectangular opening in the upper part of the back sealed with a metal plaque (fig. 3).
The Bodhisattvas wear similar crowns (although the upper part of the crown in fig. 1 is damaged) with a tall central section and two smaller side elements. The same motif can be found in the crown elements of niches of Licchavi caityas, which represents lotus leaves and a lotus flower enclosed in scroll-work [5Niels, Gutschow. The Nepalese Caitya: 1500 Years of Buddhist Votive Architecture in the Kathmandu Valley. (Berlin: Axel Menges, 1997.) :124-126.] (fig. 4). A five-gemmed decoration in the center of the crowns depicts a lotus flower resting upon lotus leaves, which could symbolize Buddha Amitabha and thus both figures can be identified as Avalokitesvara[6See Gutschow : 33-34 for the recognition symbols of the Tathagatas in Licchavi art.]. Furthermore, the crowns are topped with a crest-jewel.
The Bodhisattva in fig.2 bears a close resemblance to the early 8th century Padmapani and Vajrapani from Dhvaka Baha, Katmandu, Nepal (fig. 5)[7See the discussion on the date of the Dhvaka Baha caitya in Mary S., Slusser et al. The Antiquity of Nepalese Wood Sculpture: A Reassessment (Seattle and Washington, D.C.: University of Washington Press in association with the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, 2010.): 118.]. They share a slightly bent stance, massive shoulders, and relatively compact chest and thighs. With regards to facial features, the figure is very close to a wooden Bodhisattva (wood is radiocarbon tested to 550-680 AD) from Pritzker Collection (fig. 6) and the 8th century sculpture of Devi from the Cleveland Museum of Arts[8Ulrich, Von Schroeder. Indo-‐Tibetan Bronzes (Hong Kong: Visual Dharma Publications Ltd, 1981): 75G.].
9Jinshi, Fan. The Caves of Dunhuang. (Honk Kong: London Editions (HK) Ltd, 2010): 185.] (fig. 8). The figures in the mural reflect a Tang Chinese influence and resemble 8th century Chinese marble sculptures from Anguosi temple (figs. 9 A, B). The Bodhisattva (fig. 1) and Vairochana (fig. 8) share mighty torsos and long strong necks (note the lines on the necks go down to the level of the necklace). The facial features (lips, eyes and eyebrows) are very close as well. The arm bracelets resemble those on the Dunhuang Bodhisattvas (fig. 10), while the necklace is close to Anguosi sculptures (fig. 11).By contrast, the sculpture in fig. 1 is stiffer with shorter arms, a bigger head, lesser volume of the shoulders and a relatively bigger chest and thighs, which is closer to the 9th century Nepalese examples and particularly to Avalokitesvara from Gahiti, Patan, Nepal (fig. 7). At the same time, it possesses unusual qualities for a Nepalese sculpture with its powerful neck, which draws similarities to the mural in Yulin cave № 25 belonging to the period of the Tibetan occupation of Dunhuang (781-848 AD) and dated by scholars from the Dunhuang Academy to 821AD [
In comparison with Dunhuang Vairochana (fig. 8), the Bodhisattva in fig. 2 is adorned with equally large arm bracelets and a necklace of a different type. An almost identical necklace with a flat single pendant can be found in post Gupta Indian sculptures: in the 7th century Sarnath figure of Manjushri from the National Museum, New Deli and the 8th/9th century Northern Indian figure of Vishnu from the Norton Simon Foundation (figs. 12, 13).
In 1988 M. Rhie introduced the term "international Fondukistan style" which she applied to the group of materials dated to the 8th century from Tianlongshan (Shanxi province, China), Gilgit, Dandan-Uliq (Khotan) and Adzhina Tepe (Tadjikistan).[10Rhie, 1988: 33.] All of them reveal exaggerated gracefulness, soft movement and mannerisms that are manifested in the figures from Fondukistan. The Bodhisattva (fig. 2) could be considered as an example of this artistic trend as well (fig. 14). The figures share a wonderful sway of the torso, compact rib cage, contrasting juxtaposition of wide shoulders and a narrow waist and in Rhie's words 'plump and stiff arms lightly held away from the body'. Both are adorned with similar jewelry, namely a flat necklace and considerable arm bracelets with a somewhat similar decorative motif. Another comparable post-Gandharan example is the 7th century (?) Swat Bodhisattva from the Pakistan National museum decorated in the same combination of a lotus-like crown and a large flat necklace (fig. 15).
Regarding Tibetan monuments, striking parallels can be found in the Tibetan stone carving in Drak Lhamo from Eastern Tibet dated by inscriptions to the reign of Trisong Detsen (755-797) (figs. 16, 17). The sitting figure has an equally impressive torso and a charming facial expression conveyed by curled corners of the lips. It was noted by Dr. A. Heller that outlines of the crown resemble those of the crown of the Bodhisattva in fig. 2 [11Amy Heller, personal communication, January 2011.] (fig. 18). The figures in the carving wear earrings with a lotus motif similar to those in the Bodhisattva earrings. The right Bodhisattva on the carving demonstrates remarkable similarities in the position of the head, shape of the jawline, form of the eyes, mouth with curled corners of the lips, outline of the shoulders, arms and hands with stretched fingers (fig. 19).
Although the presented sculptures were cast according to Nepalese fashion, they demonstrate features uncommon in Nepalese sculptures, which confirms their Tibetan origin. The Bodhisattva in fig. 2 can be dated to the 8th century while the figure in fig. 1 possesses stronger connections with relatively later material and thus most likely belongs the first part of the 9th century.
Another sculpture of the Imperial period was published in 2003 in Himalayas: An Aesthetic Adventure (fig. 21)[13Pratapaditya, Pal. Himalayas: An Aesthetic Adventure (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003): 169.]. The figure of Buddha Vairochana from the Bodhicitta collection was dated to the ninth century, but the format of the publication did not allow the authors to carry out a deeper investigation of its distinctive style.
Vairochana (fig. 21) and Maitreya (fig. 22) share elongated torsos and limbs without any muscular definition, wide shoulders, relatively thin necks and recall 7th century stucco figures from the Great stupa in Nalanda, India (fig. 23). The figures are adorned with a short necklace similar to that in Nalanda Manjusri (fig. 23); pleats on the shoulders are arranged in the same way as in the Nalanda figure as well. Foliage in the necklaces, arm bracelets and petals of the crowns recall those in Nepalese sculptures (see example in fig. 7). The tall five-pointed crowns are fastened with a ribbon with swirling ends and two flowers that are attached to the base. The crowns consist of a hooplike base topped with three bars in the form of moon crescents. In Maitreya's crown, the ends of the moon crescents are held by kirtimukhas spitting gems. Three tall triangular petals grow from the moon crescent bars, while two leaf-like petals fill the space between them; in Maitreya's crown they grow from kirtimukhas. Images of kitimukha with foliage are known at least from the Gupta period in India; for instance, this motif was widely used in decorations of the Ajanta caves (fig. 24). However, the type of the crowns is not Indian; similar examples can be found in earlier Chinese sculptures, especially close foliated crowns of Bodhisattvas from the Sui dynasty (fig. 25).
The faces of the presented sculptures look Tibetan, yet reveal a mixture of Indian and Chinese features. Long narrow eyes influenced by the Nalanda stuccos adjoin Sui Chinese features recognized in sculptures from the North-West of China (Gansu and Shaanxi provinces). For instance, Vairochana's face resembles the pleasant round faces of the Sui statues from cave 427 Dunhuang (fig. 26). Maitreya is closer to Sui Amitabha from the British museum (fig. 25, lower left); both have faces with a heavy lower part, crisply delineated arched eyebrows meeting at the bridge of the long straight nose, large hollow urnas probably previously inserted with a precious stone (common Chinese feature) and lips of a similar shape. Both bronze figures have distinctive large ears similar to those in the Dunhuang sculptures (fig. 26), which were most likely adorned with earrings as well.
The similarities with Sui sculptures are not surprising as one can assume that Sui aesthetics were that which Tibetans would have met in the 7th century during initial contact with Chinese Buddhism when the high Tang style had not been fully developed yet. Furthermore, Sui statuary along with artifacts from earlier dynasties must have been very revered by Chinese missionaries, which explains why they might have become the models for the development of Tibetan Buddhist art.
The connections with Nalanda stuccos are expected as well. Interactions between Tibetans and Buddhist communities in the Bihar region of India during the Imperial period are well documented; Nalanda Mahavihara and surrounding monasteries became the leading Buddhist institutions in Northern India from the beginning of the 7th century and their popularity in Tibet is reflected in the first Tibetan monastery, Samye, which was built in 762-766AD on the model of the great monastic complex of Odantapuri. The main building consisted of three stories fashioned in Tibetan, Chinese and Indian styles by craftsmen of respective origins[14Von Schroeder, 2001: 723.]. The same idea of the mixture of three styles is accomplished in the presented sculptures.
Comparison with early Tibetan testimonials in Denma Drak and Beedo temple reveals the similarities in tall crowns and elongated bodies (fig. 27). Similar slender bodies, wide shoulders and thin necks are distinct features of the Tibetan Bodhisattvas in Dunhuang banners (fig. 28), that are close to the Nalanda stucco as well (note the distinctive three pleats on the shoulders). Maitreya in fig. 22 and the Dunhuang Bodhisattvas also wear similar flower-like earrings.
The 11th century clay figure from rKyang bu monastery can be considered as a later development of the same style (fig. 29). Amoghasiddhi has a somewhat similar crown with three crescent moon elements and tall leaf-like petals connected by two kirtimukhas spitting jewels. The face has certain connections to that of Maitreya (fig. 22), but the torso is more muscular, arms are considerably shorter and the head is larger. The clay figure is similarly clad in a dhoti and a sash made of the same fabric and wears similar earrings, but in contrast it shows strong Pala influence and is lavishly decorated.
15Von Schroeder, 1981: fig. 49F, 50E-50G, 51A, 51B, 52E.] (fig. 30), which are similarly cast of copper (as opposed to brass), gilded and were originally decorated with inserted stones. The sculpture of Maitreya has so called "stays" or struts, technical casting devices, which were not removed, but instead left to support the arms and are gilded; this technical device is one of the distinctive features of the early Nalanda bronzes as well [16Mathur, Asha Rani. The Great Traditions: Indian Bronze Masterpieces. (New Delhi: Festival of India, 1988): 119.]. The size and quality of the presented pieces are exceptional, while the majority of the excavated Nalanda bronzes are of rather average workmanship and in poor condition, which has to be taken into consideration. Pala bronzes from the first part of the 9th century do not possess slender elongated torsos and limbs of the Nalanda stuccos, but instead have more naturalistic body proportions; they are not gilded, mostly made of brass and almost never decorated with stones.[17See two inscribed sculptures from Devapala reign (810-850); Von Schroeder, 1981: 56E, 56F.] This stylistic change must have been reflected in Tibet in the 9th century, as according to textual sources, sculptures in Tibet during the reign of Ralpacan (815-838) were mostly made by Indian artists and were similar to sculptures of the Magadha region of the same period.[18Von Schroeder, 2001: 1086.] Therefore we can assume that the presented figures were likely cast in Tibet during the reign of the second Dharma king, Trisong Detsen (755-797), towards the end of the 8th century or in the early 9th century.It is most likely that the presented images (fig. 21, 22) were cast with the participation of Indian artists; stylistically and technically they are very close to gilt bronzes excavated in Nalanda and dated by U. Von Schroeder to the 7th and 8th century [
19Michael, Henss. 'Himalayan Metal Images of Five Centuries: Recent Discoveries in Tibet' in Art of Tibet: Selected Articles from Orientations 1981-1997 (Honk Kong: Orientations Magazine Ltd, 1998): 237-246, p.238, Fig.4.]. The striking similarities with Maitreya are obvious and the sculptures most probably belonged to the same set. There is an interesting detail: the presented sculptures and the Potala figure possess an unusual characteristic by wearing their wrist bracelets very high on the forearms. The author was not able to find any strong comparisons for this feature and its source requires further investigation.Another sculpture of this type can be found in the picture of Lima Lhakhang in Potala Palace taken by M. Henss in 1993 (fig. 31, second sculpture from the left)[
To summarize, the first pair of sculptures represents the Nepalese artistic tradition, which has been established in Tibet since at least the 7th century. They combine overall Nepalese modeling with distinctive Tibetan vigor and non-Nepalese stylistic elements. The Bodhisattva in fig. 1 reveals the influence of the high Tang style, which most likely became prominent in Tibetan art during the occupation of Dunhuang. The Bodhisattva in fig. 2 is directly connected with post- Gupta Indian examples and draws an interesting parallel with post-Gandharan art of Fondukistan and Swat.
The second pair shows innovative Tibetan mode based on the post-Gupta Indian style of Bihar and Sui style of North-West China. The modeling of the body is close to that in the Indian prototypes while facial features and crowns bear certain characteristics of Sui Chinese sculptural art.
What is more, all four statues possess unique Tibetan expression and can be easily distinguished from their foreign counterparts; their high technical and artistic standards confirm the presence of exceedingly skilled artists in the Tibetan Empire and the sophisticated taste of their Tibetan patrons.
Yury Khokhlov is a London based collector and an independent researcher specializing in Himalayan and Chinese Buddhist sculptures. He received his MA on Arts of China from the Glasgow University and Christie's education.
The author is deeply grateful to Dr. Amy Heller for her encouragement, inspiration and generous support and Grégoire A. Meyer for his help with digital photography.
Asha Rani M. The Great Traditions: Indian Bronze Masterpieces. New Delhi: Festival of India, 1988.
Gutschow N. The Nepalese Caitya: 1500 Years of Buddhist Votive Architecture in the Kathmandu Valley. Berlin: Axel Menges, 1997.
Fan J. The Caves of Dunhuang. Honk Kong: London Editions (HK) Ltd, 2010.
Heller A. Tibetan art: tracing the development of spiritual ideals and art in Tibet, 600-2000 A.D. Milan: Jaca Books, 1999.
Henss M. 'Himalayan Metal Images of Five Centuries: Recent Discoveries in Tibet' in Art of Tibet: Selected Articles from Orientations 1981-1997, Honk Kong: Orientations Magazine Ltd, 1998.
Pal P. Himalayas: An Aesthetic Adventure. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.
Rhie M.M. Interrelationships between the Buddhist Art of China and the Art of India and Central Asia from 618‐755 AD. (Supplemento n.54 agli ANNALI, vol.48, fasc.1). Napples: Instituto Universario Orientale, 1988.
Rhie M.M. et al. Wisdom and Compassion: The Sacred Art of Tibet. New York; London: Harry N. Abrams, 1996.
Slusser M.S. et al. The Antiquity of Nepalese Wood Sculpture: A Reassessment. Seattle and Washington, D.C.: University of Washington Press in association with the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, 2010.
Von Schroeder U. Buddhist Sculptures in Tibet. Hong Kong: Visual Dharma Publications Ltd, 2001.
Von Schroeder U. Indo-Tibetan Bronzes. Hong Kong: Visual Dharma Publications Ltd, 1981.
1. Ulrich Von Schroeder. Buddhist Sculptures in Tibet (Hong Kong: Visual Dharma Publications Ltd, 2001): 736- 739.
2. Marylin M., Rhie. Interrelationships between the Buddhist Art of China and the Art of India and Central Asia from 618‐755 AD. (Supplemento n.54 agli ANNALI, vol.48, fasc.1). Napples: Instituto Universario Orientale,1988.
3. Marylin M., Rhie et al. Wisdom and Compassion: The Sacred Art of Tibet (New York; London: Harry N. Abrams, 1996):416.
4. Sotheby's catalog, 25 of March 1999, lot. 63 (a rare Tibetan copper figure of Bodhisattva 11/12 century).
5. Niels, Gutschow. The Nepalese Caitya: 1500 Years of Buddhist Votive Architecture in the Kathmandu Valley. (Berlin: Axel Menges, 1997.) :124-126.
6. See Gutschow : 33-34 for the recognition symbols of the Tathagatas in Licchavi art.
7. See the discussion on the date of the Dhvaka Baha caitya in Mary S., Slusser et al. The Antiquity of Nepalese Wood Sculpture: A Reassessment (Seattle and Washington, D.C.: University of Washington Press in association with the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, 2010.): 118.
8. Ulrich Von Schroeder. Indo-‐Tibetan Bronzes (Hong Kong: Visual Dharma Publications Ltd, 1981): 75G.
9. Jinshi, Fan. The Caves of Dunhuang. (Honk Kong: London Editions (HK) Ltd, 2010): 185.
10. Rhie, 1988: 33.
11. Amy Heller, personal communication, January 2011.
12. Amy Heller. Tibetan art: tracing the development of spiritual ideals and art in Tibet, 600-2000 A.D. (Milan: Jaca Books, 1999): 9.
13. Pratapaditya, Pal. Himalayas: An Aesthetic Adventure (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003): 169.
14. Von Schroeder, 2001: 723.
15. Von Schroeder, 1981: fig. 49F, 50E-50G, 51A, 51B, 52E.
16. Mathur, Asha Rani. The Great Traditions: Indian Bronze Masterpieces. (New Delhi: Festival of India, 1988): 119.
17. See two inscribed sculptures from Devapala reign (810-850); Von Schroeder, 1981: 56E, 56F.
18. Von Schroeder, 2001: 1086.
19. Michael Henss. 'Himalayan Metal Images of Five Centuries: Recent Discoveries in Tibet' in Art of Tibet: Selected Articles from Orientations 1981-1997 (Honk Kong: Orientations Magazine Ltd, 1998): 237-246, p.238, Fig.4.
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