5 minutes with… Two limestone Tang-dynasty bodhisattvas

Chinese Works of Art specialist Olivia Hamilton reckons these 1,300-year-old sculptures are two of the finest of their period that she’s seen come up for sale. On 13-14 September they will be offered in New York, with an estimate of $1.5-2.5 million each

‘When I first saw these two figures, I was immediately struck by how extraordinarily beautiful they are,’ says Olivia Hamilton, Chinese Works of Art specialist at Christie’s in New York. The two bodhisattva figures were carved from grey limestone during the Tang dynasty, which stretched from 618 to 907 AD. ‘As a pair, they really interact with one another,’ she adds. ‘You can place them at almost any angle and they seem to be in conversation because they are so full of expression and movement. You just want to take them home and put them in your apartment!’

In the Buddhist tradition, a bodhisattva is a benevolent being who has attained enlightenment but has postponed entry into nirvana to help others achieve release from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. For our specialist, this spirit of altruism comes through particularly strongly. ‘When you look at them you get the sense that they are protective, they are helpful, they are compassionate, they are on your side,’ she says. ‘They have a very calm, reassuring presence.’

An important and very rare grey limestone figure of Mahasthamaprapta, Early Tang dynasty, 8th century. 26⅜  in (67 cm) high. Estimate $1,500,000-2,500,000; An important and very rare grey limestone figure of Avalokiteshvara, Early Tang dynasty, 8th century. 26⅜  in (67  cm) high. Estimate $1,500,000-2,500,000. Offered in Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art on 13-14 September 2018 at Christie’s

An important and very rare grey limestone figure of Mahasthamaprapta, Early Tang dynasty, 8th century. 26⅜ in (67 cm) high. Estimate: $1,500,000-2,500,000; An important and very rare grey limestone figure of Avalokiteshvara, Early Tang dynasty, 8th century. 26⅜ in (67 cm) high. Estimate: $1,500,000-2,500,000. Offered in Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art on 13-14 September 2018 at Christie’s in New York

Although sometimes multi-headed or multi-armed, bodhisattvas are generally depicted in human form. Richly attired, they are represented with long hair often arranged in a tall bun, as seen in these sculptures. Bodhisattvas wear ornamental scarves, rich silk dhotis, and a wealth of jewellery that typically includes necklaces, armlets, bracelets and anklets. Like Buddhas, bodhisattvas have distended earlobes; some wear earrings, others do not.

These figures date from the early 8th century. They represent two of the eight great bodhisattvas of Mahayana Buddhism: Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, known in Chinese as Guanshiyin Pusa, and Mahasthamaprapta, the bodhisattva of wisdom, known in Chinese as Dashizhi Pusa.

‘These figures represent the height of Tang style. They are some of the best pieces you'll see’

During the Tang dynasty the two bodhisattvas were typically presented as a pair. Originally set on a temple altar, these figures would probably have appeared on either side of the Buddha Amitabha — the Buddha of Infinite Light — with whom they were associated, forming a triad. The altar group might have included additional figures of monks or winged celestial figures known as apsaras.

Like most early Buddhist stone sculptures, says Hamilton, these bodhisattvas would have been embellished with brightly coloured pigments, including saffron, blues and greens for the robes and scarves; gilding for the jewellery; pink or white for the flesh; and black or blue for the hair.

The figures’ fleshy necks, plump cheeks and downcast eyes under finely arched brows, as well as their slightly pursed mouths and dimples, are characteristic of the early 8th-century style

The figures’ fleshy necks, plump cheeks and downcast eyes under finely arched brows, as well as their slightly pursed mouths and dimples, are characteristic of the early 8th-century style

‘These sculptures represent the height of Tang style,’ Hamilton adds. ‘They are some of the best pieces you'll see.’ The Tang aesthetic is characterised by naturalism and movement, as evidenced in the fleshy necks, plump cheeks, downcast eyes and finely arched brows of these figures. The small, slightly pursed mouths, the cleft chins and the dimples that frame each mouth are also characteristic of the early 8th century. 

‘There is a real sense of movement in the articulated fold of the clothes. Their robes seem to sway,’ says the specialist. ‘The jewellery they are wearing is slightly at an angle, which also emphasises the movement.’

On 13 September the figures will be offered in the Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art  sale at Christie’s in New York. Although they come to auction as two separate lots, since 1925 they have been kept in the same prominent collections, including that of Grenville L. Winthrop, the renowned New York collector of early Chinese art, and Chicago collector James W. Alsdorf.

‘They are very much two pieces that work as unit,’ says the specialist, who hopes that they will find a new home together. ‘They are certainly the finest examples of Tang style that I’ve seen come up for sale.’