‘My first impressions were, “Is this right? Is this too good
to be true?”,’ reveals Cecilia Zi, Chinese Works of Art specialist at Christie’s in London. She is referring to the
first time she encountered this rare
Xuande-period, gilt-bronze seated figure of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara.
Zi and her colleagues spotted the sculpture when they were
doing a valuation visit at the property of Soame Jenyns,
the former Keeper of Asian Art at the British Museum. Little
did they know then that there is more to the bronze than
meets the eye. As our specialist quickly discovered, the figure is hollow inside and the base is sealed with a copper plate.
The sculpture, which is a presentation of Avalokiteshvara (the
bodhisattva of compassion who works tirelessly to helps others
to reach nirvana) and will be offered in our
Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art auction in
London — dates to the reign of Emperor Xuande (1426-1435)
during the Ming dynasty in China.
Both the Emperor Xuande and his grandfather, Emperor Yongle, were supporters of Buddhist art and sculpture, and Chinese Buddhist art with Tibetan influence evolved considerably during the period covered by their reigns.
The bodhisattva’s broad shoulders, smooth torso, and long legs derive from Indian traditions. By contrast, the large circular earrings; the broad, somewhat square face with high cheekbones and elegant, curved eyebrows; and the prolific use of inlays stem from Nepali and Tibetan traditions.
Engraved to the top of the base of the sculpture is Emperor Xuande’s
reign mark ‘Da Ming Xuande nian shi’, which translates as ‘Bestowed during the
Xuande era of the Great Ming [dynasty]’. Inscriptions on such Tibeto-Chinese-style bronzes typically read from left to right, as seen here, and end with the verb shi, in this context meaning ‘bestow’, rather than with the verb zhi, meaning ‘made’, which is commonly seen in the imperial marks of porcelains of the same period.
‘Judging by the condition of the baseplate, this Bodhisattva has not been opened for hundreds of years’ — Cecilia Zi
Figures like this gilt-bronze bodhisattva would have been consecrated in a Buddhist ceremony during which dedicatory objects were placed inside. Such hollow-cast sculptures were then sealed, with the base plate kept in place by a combination of friction and red wax.
When our specialist took the sculpture for a radiographic examination, the test showed several objects inside: a short scroll, possibly from a sutra; various fragments of textiles; and what seem to be four small beads.
‘This discovery is really exciting because it shows for certain that this figure was consecrated in the 15th century,’ Zi says. ‘The condition of the baseplate strongly suggests it is the original, which would mean that the Bodhisattva has not been opened for hundreds of years.’
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The new owner could potentially open the bronze but for our
specialist it is enough to know that the sculpture is ‘a
treasure that bears treasures inside. No matter how much
you look at it, you can never see all the details.’
That this piece belonged to Soame Jenyns is testament to both his
knowledge of East Asian art and his great eye for beauty
and craftsmanship. In addition to publishing numerous books
on the British Museum’s collection of Asian art, Jenyns built
up a personal collection of Chinese and Japanese works of
art, including bronzes, porcelain and lacquer. Further objects from his collection will be offered in the London auction
and a dedicated online auction.