BESTOWING INFINITE LIFE: A RARE LEGACY OF XUANDE ROSEMARY SCOTT - INTERNATIONAL ACADEMIC DIRECTOR, ASIAN ART This magnificent and serene Amitayus is a rare example of an imperial gilt-bronze Buddhist figure from the reign of the Xuande emperor (AD 1426-35). Many scholars and connoisseurs regard the imperial gilt-bronze figures of the Yongle (1403-24) and Xuande reigns as aesthetically amongst the finest sculptures ever made in China, and see this period during the first half of the 15th century as a particular high point in Buddhist sculpture. While the gilt-bronze figures made in the imperial workshops during both the Yongle (1403-24) and Xuande reigns were equally fine, far fewer figures from the latter reign period appear to have survived. Even amongst the few extant Xuande statues, the current figure is especially rare, since it is considerably larger than the majority of surviving examples. The figure exhibits the technical perfection and artistic grace that has come to be associated with the gilt-bronze Buddhist figures of the Yongle and Xuande reigns made in a style known as Tibeto-Chinese or Sino-Tibetan. Tibetan Buddhism or Lamaism saw a considerable increase in popularity in China under the Mongols, who had adopted it as their national religion even before their conquest of China. The first Ming dynasty emperor, Hongwu (1368-98), had joined a Buddhist temple as a novice at the age of seventeen and had spent eight years in monastic life. He retained an interest in Buddhism after becoming emperor and he was also concerned that there should not be repetition of the fierce conflict between China and Tibet that had occurred in Tang times. He therefore sent an envoy to the Karma-pa abbots who controlled the Kham region and south-eastern Tibet asking those who had held office under the Yuan dynasty to come to Nanjing for reinvestiture. It seems likely that the future Yongle emperor was introduced to Tibetan Buddhism and became interested in it around AD 1380, when he was enfeoffed in Beijing, and he also had strong ties to the Mongol military elite, who were adherents of Lamaist Buddhism. It appears that he continued to practice this form of Buddhism for the rest of his life. Certainly more works of art depicting Lamaist Buddhist deities and imagery were produced during his reign period than under any other Chinese emperor, with the exception of the Qing Emperor Qianlong. During the Yongle reign many Tibetan hierarchs were invited to the Chinese capital, where they were feted and presented with valuable gifts. Gifts frequently continued to be exchanged with the court even after they returned to Tibet. During the Xuande reign (1426-35) the number of Tibetan lamas who came to reside in the monasteries in the Chinese capital rose to record numbers, so much so that at the beginning of the Zhengtong period (1436-49), 691 of them were sent home. In 1434 the Xuande Emperor invited a high lama by the name of Sakya Yeshe to Beijing, and bestowed upon him the title Great Compassionate Dharma King. When the lama returned to Tibet, the emperor presented him with two portraits in Tibetan mandala format- one in tapestry and one in embroidery. However, official reports from the Xuande reign very rarely mention Buddhist sculptures as gifts sent to Tibet or presented to visiting hierarchs, and the small number of Xuande figures preserved in Tibet seems to confirm that far fewer gilt-bronze figures found their way to Tibet during the Xuande reign than in the Yongle period. This figure of Amitayus with its fine casting, large size and Xuande bestowal mark may have been intended as an imperial gift to a high lama, but is much more likely to have been intended for ritual use by a member, or members, of the imperial household. Although larger than either, the style of the current figure is very similar to two gilt bronze figures in the Reitberg Museum in Zurich - a seated figure of Manjusri and a kneeling figure of a Bodhisattva - both of which also bear Xuande bestowal marks (see On the Path to Enlightenment - The Berti Aschmann Foundation of Tibetan Art at the Museum Rietberg Zurich, 1995, pp. 118-9, no. 68 (fig. 1), and pp. 122-3, no. 72, respectively). It has been suggested that the Xuande kneeling bodhisattva in the Reitberg, may possibly be intended to represent a member of the Chinese imperial family. The Buddha Amitayus is the Buddha of Infinite Life, from 'amita' meaning infinite and 'ayus' meaning life. While the Buddha's hands are joined in dhyana-mudra, an attitude of meditation, they may also have held a jar containing amrita, the elixir of immortality. Amit?yus, who is closely linked to the Buddha Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light, was an especially popular deity amongst Tibetans. This Buddha was depicted either in simple monk's robes without jewellery or crown, or as the crowned Amitayus, like the current example. Helmut Uhlig has noted that the majority of Tibeto-Chinese bronzes from the Yongle and Xuande reigns show crowned Buddhas wearing the elaborate jewellery of a monarch or of a magnificently adorned Bodhisattva. Uhlig states that: 'They formed part of the glittering display of imperial splendour, while at the same time representing the imperial family's and the court's visible religious link to the Buddhist world.' (see Helmut Uhlig in On the Path to Enlightenment - The Berti Aschmann Foundation of Tibetan Art at the Museum Rietberg Zurich, op. cit., p. 18). The figure of Amitayus, with his association with long life, may well have been commissioned for a special occasion, such as an imperial birthday - either that of the emperor himself, or that of another member of the royal family, possibly his mother Empress Zhang, who was a great support to him during his reign. THE PROPERTY OF A PROMINENT AMERICAN COLLECTOR


The deity is seated majestically with legs crossed in padmasana, the hands in mudra of meditation, dhyanamudra, held above the thighs, the rounded face with eyes downcast providing a benevolent expression, the hair swept back in a topknot behind an elaborate eight-leaf crown with short sashes tied behind the ears, wearing a gossamer shawl over the broad shoulders revealing a bare torso festooned with jewelled chains radiating from strands of pearls forming the central collar, the long dhoti secured by a belt decorated with rosettes around the narrow waist, beaded bracelets and armbands with foliate projections, the beaded lotus base incised with six-character reign mark, Daming Xuande Nianshi, 'Bestowed in the Xuande period of the Great Ming Dynasty'
22 1/2 in. (57.1 cm.) high
An Irish estate
Previously sold at Sotheby's New York, Indian and Southeast Asian Art, 25 March 1999, lot 121

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Lot Essay

During a brief period in the early 15th century, between Yongle (1403-1425) and Xuande reigns, a group of exceedingly fine gilt-bronze sculptures were commission by the imperial court. Emperor Yongle actively courted Tibetan hierarchs and persuaded them to visit China, resulting in the development of Chinese style gilt-bronze Buddhist images.

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