7. Buddha Sakyamuni
Thailand, Sukhothai Kingdom circa 1300 CE
Bronze, cast in the lost wax method
Height 98 cm
This superb life-sized statue represents the historical Buddha Sakyamuni, seated in virasana with his hands resting in dhyani mudra, a gesture that produces a balanced energy flow during meditation. According to tradition, this was the gesture assumed by Sakyamuni during his last meditation before he attained enlightenment, and signifies his supreme consciousness. Buddha is simply clad in an almost transparent monastic robe that leaves his right shoulder uncovered. Radiant serenity can be read in the exquisite arch of the eyebrows and the smile that hovers gently on the lips. His head is covered with large curls and the ushnisa is surmounted by a flame of illumination. The earlobes elongated by the weight of princely jewellery reflect the royal lifestyle he renounced in his quest for enlightenment.
There are several indications that this statue was originally seated on the coils of Mucilinda, the serpent king, who protected Sakyamuni from the elements after his enlightenment. This is an iconography found fairly often in early Sukhothai images of the Buddha. Moreover, the shape of the pleated shawl is consistent with that of the famous Buddha Naga Mucilinda from Wat Wieng in Chaiya Province (northern Thailand), dated to 1183 and now in the National Museum of Bangkok. There is also the fact that the base of this Buddha is designed to fit into a lower section, unlike other figures of Sakyamuni that have the right hand in bhumisparsha mudra and are seated on a small finished throne. Finally, the patina on the back of the figure is less deep than the rich natural patina on the front, which would be the natural result of centuries of protection by Mucilinda’s body rising up to shelter Sakyamuni with his hood.
The Sukhothai kingdom was formed when the area around the city of Sukhothai in central Thailand became independent in 1238. There followed an artistically brilliant period which lasted until the rise of Ayudhia in 1438. The height of Sukhothai’s power was reached during the reign of Ramkamhaeng (1279-1299), when the kingdom covered most of present-day Thailand. Sukhothai developed a beautiful individual style, creating Buddha images that exhibited an unprecedented artistic level and marked a high point of Thai cultural history.
In this Buddha’s consummately crafted face one beautiful volume flows into the next, allowing the eye to wander in wonder from feature to feature. The body is monumental, its parts revealed by the sheerness of the samghati. This is a so-called early ‘Lion’ type with broad shoulders, fleshy cheeks, full chest and narrow hips. The shape of the pleated shawl is analogous to that of the aforementioned Wat Wieng Buddha, and similar shawls are also found on statues of Buddha produced in the reign of Ramkamhaeng, including a meditating Buddha protected by Mucilinda at Chalieng, and various Buddha images at Wat Chang Lom and Wat Mahathat at Sawankhalok. The period of this Buddha’s production can also be deduced from its classic stylistic traits and high degree of technical finish. The flame is shorter than it becomes in later examples. The finely delineated mouth, the precise rendering of the extremely large curls and the pronounced ears, the elegant line of the eyebrows that segues into the nose and the nose’s earthward-pointing tip are, like the smooth polished surface of the high quality cast bronze, very typical characteristics of an early classic Sukhothai production.
This impressive bronze Buddha has a massive and majestic presence; it is an important early classic work of the Sukhothai Kingdom. It has a great sense of balanced energy, inner calm and nobility. The metal is complemented by a deep natural patina and traces of gilding, and is striking for its perfect volume and beautiful contour. This Buddha is one of the most expressive examples of its kind.
Provenance: Collection Mr R. Stephenson (1948-2012), Canada, circa 1982-2012.
A.B. Griswold, Towards a History of Sukhodaya Art, Bangkok, 1967, figs. 8, 10, 13, 32, 33.
J. Boisselier, The Heritage of Thai Sculpture, Bangkok, 1974, p. 102 and p. 228, fig. 67.
P. Krairiksh, A Historiography of Sukhothai Art. A Framework in Need of Revision, JSS, volume 81, Pt. 1, 1993, figs. 6, 32.
Detail: side view
Detail: close-up of face