A Rare Yuan Dynasty Qingbai-glazed Seated Buddha
Rosemary Scott, International Academic Director Asian Art
This slender figure sits in padmasana (also known as the lotus position) with each foot resting on the opposite knee, sole upwards. The Buddha’s back is straight, and his right hand is held in front of his chest in the vitarka mudra, which symbolises intellectual discussion, while the ring formed by the forefinger and thumb signifies the wheel of law. The Buddha’s left hand rest gently in his lap in the gyan mudra, which is sometimes called the mudra of knowledge. In accordance with the 32 lakshanas (special bodily features of the Buddha), the figure has an urna in the centre of his forehead (symbolising spiritual insight), and an usnisha on the top of his head (symbolising the attainment of enlightenment). He also has elongated ear-lobes, which reflect the fact that the Buddha was formerly a prince, who wore heavy jewellery.
While there are a number of Yuan dynasty qingbai-glazed Bodhisattva figures known, usually depicting Guanyin, Buddha figures are much rarer. Yuan dynasty Buddhist figures made in porcelain and covered with a qingbai glaze, developed from the tradition of finely-modelled religious figures made at the Jingdezhen kilns during the Southern Song period (1127-1279). There is a very small extant group of these Song figures in international collections. Inscriptions and the date of tombs in which these figures have been found suggest that they were made in the second and third quarters of the 13th century - just prior to the Mongol conquest. The majority of the extant Song dynasty figures of this type have been discovered in the south of China, within territory controlled by the Southern Song, however at least one has been found in the north, in Jin dynasty (1115-1234) territory, and suggests that the figure was regarded as valuable enough to warrant being taken hundreds of miles into lands controlled by the Jurchen.
All the qingbai religious figures surviving from the Southern Song dynasty appear to be only partly glazed, to allow for the application of ‘cold-painted’ decoration, but this was not usually the case in the Yuan dynasty, when the figures are generally fully glazed, as in the case of the current figure. However, there is a small number of Yuan dynasty partially-glazed qingbai Buddhist figures, where the unglazed areas were intended to be covered with lacquer. This can be seen on a seated, qingbai glazed, figure of the Buddha Amitabha is in the collection of the Beijing Art Museum (exhibited by Christie’s New York in Treasures from Ancient Beijing, 2000, exhibit no. 7). This figure, dated to the Yuan dynasty, has robes, which are partially lacquered, apparently over areas of the porcelain left free of glaze. Gilded designs, representing the patterns on the robe are painted on the lacquered areas. The partial glazing of a Yuan dynasty seated qingbai Buddha in the collection of the Shanghai Museum (illustrated in Qingbai Ware: Chinese porcelain of the Song and Yuan Dynasties, S. Pierson (ed.), London, 2002, pp. 208-9, no. 117), suggests that it too would originally have had lacquer applied to the unglazed parts of its robe. The lacquer seems to have adhered rather tenuously to the porcelain and was very susceptible to damage, which would explain why none can now be seen on the Shanghai figure. These figures are 51 cm. and 41.3 cm. in height, respectively - somewhat larger than the current figure. A Yuan dynasty seated Guanyin in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, dated by inscription to AD 1298 or 1299, is 51.4 cm. tall, and is fully glazed except for the figure's underskirt, which has been left unglazed, possibly to allow for the application of lacquer (illustrated by S.E. Lee and Ho Wai-kam, Chinese Art Under the Mongols: The Yüan Dynasty (1279-1368), Cleveland, Ohio, 1968, no. 26).
The Yuan dynasty porcelain figures with qingbai glaze are frequently larger than their Southern Song counterparts. The famous qingbai glazed Yuan dynasty Bodhisattva seated in Maharaja lilasana, which was excavated in 1955 from Dingfu Street in the western suburbs of Beijing, is 67 cm. tall. This figure is now in the Capital Museum, Beijing (illustrated in Complete Collection of Ceramic Art Unearthed in China – 1 – Beijing, Beijing, 2008, no. 81). Another qingbai glazed seated Bodhisattva in the collection of the Rietberg Museum, Zurich, is 52 cm. in height (illustrated by S.E. Lee and Ho Wai-kam, op. cit., no. 25), and the Yuan dynasty qingbai glazed seated bodhisattva in the Metropolitan Museum, New York is 50.8 cm. tall (illustrated by S. Pierson, op. cit., pp. 218-9, no. 122). A bodhisattva in the collection of Mr. Alan Chuang, which is notable for its particularly fine jewellery and also its size, is 67 cm. high. The appearance of larger figures in the Yuan dynasty towards the end of the 13th century can be explained not only by changing tastes, but also by changes in technology - specifically to the porcelain body material used at Jingdezhen. The new body material contained more kaolin and thus more alumina, which facilitated the production of larger figures, and indeed vessels.
However a number of extant Yuan dynasty figures, including the current figure, fall into a size group which falls somewhere between the smaller Southern Song figures and the very large Yuan figures. A elaborately bejewelled Yuan dynasty Guanyin in the collection of C.P. Lin (illustrated by R. Scott in Elegant Form and Harmonious Decoration: Four Dynasties of Jingdezhen Porcelain, London, 1992, p. 20, no. 4) is slightly smaller than the current figure, as is a Yuan Guanyin in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum (illustrated by S. Pierson, op. cit., pp. 216-7, no. 121). A seated qingbai figure of Guanyin sold by Christie’s Hong Kong, 26 November, 2014, lot 3102, also belongs to this group, the sizes of which range from 30 cm. to 38 cm. While the majority of the very large Yuan dynasty porcelain figures have open bases, a number of this smaller group have closed bases – as in the case of the current Buddha figure. The current figure may also be compared with another Yuan dynasty, fully-glazed, seated Buddha, exhibited in Hong Kong by the Oriental Ceramic Society and the Fung Ping Shan Museum in Jingdezhen Wares – The Yuan Evolution, 1984, no. 24. The exhibited figure shares a number of similar features, especially the drapery and the treatment of the hair, but the right hand is held in a different mudra, and it is slightly smaller than the current seated Buddha.