5 minutes with… A gilt-bronze Bodhisattva containing hidden treasures

Chinese Works of Art specialist Cecilia Zi describes her delight at discovering the mysteries within this rare Xuande-period gilt-bronze figure of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. Almost 600 years old, it will be offered in London on 6 November

‘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.

Radiographic scans of the seated figure of Avalokiteshvara reveal the auspicious objects that have been placed within it, and which are likely to have remained sealed since the 15th century

Radiographic scans of the seated figure of Avalokiteshvara reveal the auspicious objects that have been placed within it, and which are likely to have remained sealed since the 15th century

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.