A trio of devotional statues of the Buddha: ‘This is the first time I have seen a triad like this intact’

Bhaisajyaguru, Shakyamuni and Amitabha: a Ming dynasty gilt-bronze ‘triad’ of Buddhas on their original stands will be offered at auction in Paris on 16 December 2022

Christie’s Art d’Asie auction, which takes place in Paris on 16 December, will feature Buddhist sculptures, jade carvings, classical and modern Chinese paintings, porcelain, cloisonné enamels, lacquers and furniture. Many of the 196 lots on sale are from important private European collections.

They include a rare Indian bronze figure of Shiva Nataraja, which dates from the 15th or 16th centuries, a Nepalese gilt-bronze figure of Buddha Shakyamuni from the same period, and a 16th-century Tibetan gilt-bronze figure of the Buddhist deity Mahachakravajrapani.

The sale’s Chinese painting section features 30 works from a private French collection, including an 18th-century imperial Shuilu painting by the Prince Zhuang and a selection of modern paintings acquired from the prominent Chinese collector Wang Zuo (1921-2010).

A side view of the Buddhas, which sold for €1,902,000 on 16 December 2022 at Christie’s in Paris

Most exceptionally, the sale will feature a Ming dynasty gilt-bronze Buddhist triad dating from around the 16th or 17th century. The ensemble consists of three Buddhas: Bhaisajyaguru (the Medicine Buddha) on the left, Shakyamuni (the Historical Buddha) in the centre and Amitabha (the Buddha of Infinite Light) on the right.

‘This is the first time I have seen a triad like this intact – most of the time they have been separated over the centuries,’ says Zheng Ma, Senior Specialist in Chinese works of art at Christie’s Paris. ‘They also all sit on their original stands, which is very rare.’ Zheng notes that the round faces and bodies of the Buddhas are characteristic of the sculptors of the Ming dynasty, which ruled China from 1368 to 1644. ‘These figures are purely Chinese, whereas the ones influenced by Tibetan Buddhism have much more elongated bodies,’ she says.

Shakyamuni (the ‘Historical Buddha’) from the triad of Buddhas that sold for €1,902,000 on 16 December 2022 at Christie’s in Paris

The generous size of the sculptures also distinguishes them. Most Buddhas we see in the art market are less than 40cm tall, whereas these three are 50cm without their stands and 78cm when mounted.

Each figure has a small protuberance on its skull to symbolise the wisdom the Buddha gained at his enlightenment. They also bear other features typical of sculptures of the Buddha, such as the urna, or circular mark in the centre of the forehead signifying enlightenment. The gilded bronze in which the figures have been cast symbolises the light that, according to sacred texts, radiated from the Buddha’s body.

The three figures can be distinguished from one another by their mudras, the symbolic gestures they are making with their hands. The figures are presented in the guise of monks, as indicated by their robes and hairstyles. The original blue paint used to colour their hair is still visible, which suggests the statues have been well-looked after over the centuries.

The triad comes from the family collection of a Belgian engineer who worked for the Belgian Compagnie de Tramways et d’Eclairage de Tientsin, in the Chinese city now known as Tianjin, from 1934 to 1938. ‘I think the family who owned the triad never cleaned them, which is a really good thing,’ says Zheng. ‘The gilt bronze is still largely intact, and has a beautiful, aged patina.’

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