This 51 cm-high gilt Buddha was produced sometime in the 13th or 14th century by a master Newari artist. The original inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley, the Newars are renowned for their artistic skill, particularly related to bronze casting.
‘We know examples of their work dating back to the 4th century,’ says Leiko Coyle, Senior Specialist in Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Art at Christie’s in New York. ‘But even today, if you go to the valley you will see Newar artists practising the same techniques they used hundreds of years ago. It's an unbroken living tradition — such a rarity these days.'
A large and important gilt bronze figure of Buddha. Nepal, 13th/14th century. 51 cm high. Sold for $3,852,500 on 13 September 2017 at Christie’s in New York
‘I first saw this piece in our London warehouse a couple of years ago,’ the specialist continues. ‘When we got word that it was coming to New York, I was beyond ecstatic. For Himalayan art, this type of bronze from this early period is rare — and it's so large! That doesn’t happen very often.'
Heavily influenced by the art of Gupta India and later by Pala-period prototypes, the Newars developed their own unique aesthetic. ‘In my opinion, its one of the most beautiful and compelling styles in South Asian art history', Coyle says. ‘In this gilded Buddha, you see the rounded, supple contours reminiscent of early Gupta figures, but the profile, with the long, hooked nose, is very Pala.'
In this gilt Buddha, the influence of Pala art — an important sculptural style that reached its peak in Northeast India in the 12th century — can be seen in the profile, particularly the long, protruding nose
This work represents the moment when the Buddha achieves enlightenment. 'The figure is sitting in a meditative posture, but it remains animated,' Coyle adds. 'He's relaxed, but not static: a true yogic master. The shoulders are broad and full; the toes are splayed; and the face has a slight smile. He appears full of the breath of life'.
The figure’s hands and feet are another outstanding feature. ‘In a lesser example, they won’t be very lifelike — they may even be kind of clunky,’ says Coyle. ‘But a great sculpture, like this one, always has beautiful, well-understood hands and feet.’
Central to much of Buddhist religious art is the process of consecration. Generally, explains the specialist, ‘there will be a cavity at the bottom or back of the sculpture, that is filled with materials — pages of Buddhist scripture, sacred herbs, or fabrics from the garments of an important living religious figure — and sealed with a baseplate. It’s a way of imbuing the sculpture with life or power.’
Generally, there will be a cavity at the bottom or back of sculptures such as this, which is filled with materials. In this example the materials have been preserved inside
Most extant Buddha figures no longer retain this material but, unusually, in this instance it has been preserved, although the baseplate itself is missing. ‘If you tilt the bronze back you can see cloth, herbs and scrolls of Buddhist text inside,’ says Coyle. ‘It really gives you a sense that these objects were considered living containers for divine energy.
‘I spent nearly 10 years living in Nepal, so I have a deep love for its art,’ the specialist continues. ‘This Buddha has a purity of form and sweetness that captures the essence of Nepal. For me, it’s a dream piece.’
‘There’s a real vibrancy to the figure,’ says Coyle. ‘The shoulders are broad and full, and there’s a narrowness in the torso. It’s like it’s full of breath.’
The Buddha, now in the collection of Baroness Thyssen-Bornemisza, will be offered in the Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Works of Art sale on 13 September at Christie’s in New York.