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La triade est composée de trois Bouddha : Bhaisajyaguru (le Bouddha de la médecine) sur la gauche, Shakyamuni (le Bouddha éveillé) au centre et Amithaba (le Bouddha de la Lumière-Infinie) sur la droite. Ils sont représentés assis en vajrasana sur une base lotiforme reposant sur un socle quadrangulaire. Ils sont vêtus d'un dhoti ceinturé à la taille et d'une longue robe recouvrant leurs épaules bordée d'un galon à motifs floraux incisés. Leur poitrine est découverte. Ils sont empreints d'une expression sereine conférée par leurs yeux mi-clos et leur bouche souriante. Leur front est paré de l'urna et leurs cheveux coiffés en de petites boucles sont surmontés de l'ushnisha. Bhaisajyaguru tient dans sa main droite tendue vers l'avant le fruit mirobolant et sa main gauche est en dhyanamudra. Shakyamuni repose sa main droite en bhumisparshamudra sur son genou et présente sa main gauche en dhyanamudra. Amitabha rassemble ses mains en dhyanamudra. Elles présentent des traces de polychromie.
Hauteur des statues : 50 cm. (19 3/4 in.) et 50,5 cm. (19 7/8 in.) ; Hauteur totale : 78 cm. (30 3/4 in.)
From the collection of a Belgian engineer who worked for the Belgian 'Compagnie de Tramways et d'Eclairage de Tientsin' from 1934 to 1938 in Tianjin, and thence by descent in the family.
Post lot text

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Tiphaine Nicoul
Tiphaine Nicoul Head of department

Lot Essay

Robert D. Mowry
Alan J. Dworsky Curator of Chinese Art Emeritus,
Harvard Art Museum, and Senior Consultant, Christie's

Rare and exceptionally important, this gilt-bronze, Buddhist Triad dates to the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), probably to the sixteenth or early seventeenth century. The ensemble features free-standing sculptures of three Buddhas: Bhaisajyaguru (the Medicine Buddha) on the left, Shakyamuni (the Historical Buddha) in the center, and Amitabha (the Buddha of Infinite Light) on the right. Apart from the sculptures’ generous size and fine casting, this ensemble is rare on several counts: 1) The three sculptures have remained together as a set over the centuries, 2) The sculptures have retained their original bronze bases, 3) The sculptures and their bases are in excellent condition, and 4) In Europe since the late 1930s, the set claims a long record of provenance, having been purchased by a Belgian engineer who worked in Tianjin for the Belgian “Compagnie de Tramways et d’Eclairage de Tientsin” from 1934 until 1938.

“Buddha” means “the Enlightened One” and refers to an individual who has attained enlightenment and entered into nirvana. The ushnisha, or cranial protuberance atop the head that symbolizes the expanded wisdom that the Buddha gained at his enlightenment, identifies each of these figures as a Buddha. Although other deities may have their hair arranged in a tall bun or coiffure, only the Buddha possesses an ushnisha, so the distinctive protuberance atop the head stands as the Buddha’s definitive diagnostic iconographic feature. The sacred texts, or sutras, state that the Buddha bears the mahapurusa laksana, or “Thirty-two Marks of a Great Man”; among those marks, the ones typically portrayed in sculptures are the urna , or circular mark at the center of the forehead, the webbed fingers and toes, and the previously mentioned ushnisha.

As Buddhas, the figures in this set are presented in the guise of monks as indicated by the robes and short hair. Though not diagnostic features, the robes, urna, benevolent countenance, distended earlobes, small snail-shell curls of hair, and webbed fingers also count among the iconographic attributes of Buddhas. Often incorrectly termed a “third eye”, or even a caste mark, the urna, which is typically represented by a painted disk, an inset cabochon jewel, or a small circular protuberance, is the curl of white hair between the Buddha’s eyebrows from which issues a ray of light illuminating all worlds.[1] The gilded surfaces not only make the sculpture appropriate for representing a deity but symbolize the light that, according to the sacred texts, or sutras , radiates from his body.

These Buddhas sit in vajrasana , a cross-legged sitting position, or asana, in which the feet are placed on the opposing thighs, soles up, the heels as close to the abdomen as possible, and the knees and legs as symmetrically arranged as possible. Often termed padmasana (the lotus position) or dhyanasana (the meditation position) in English, the position is known as vajrasana in Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism.

Mahayana Buddhism (Chinese, Dasheng fojiao), the predominant form practiced in traditional China, rose to prominence in India in the first century AD, splitting from the older, Theravada school (Chinese, Xiaosheng fojiao). In contrast to Theravada Buddhism, with its emphasis on monastic life, the Mahayana school promises salvation to all who sincerely seek it, monk and laity alike. Also differing from the Theravada school, which views the Buddha Shakyamuni as a mortal who attained enlightenment and thus stands as a worthy model for others to emulate, Mahayana Buddhism sees the Buddha Shakyamuni not only as a deity but as one of a host of Buddhas, all of whom are considered deities.

The Buddhas most widely worshipped in China, and thus those most frequently portrayed, are those represented in this triad: Shakyamuni (the Historical Buddha), Amitabha (the Buddha of Infinite Light), and Bhaisajyaguru (the Medicine Buddha). The various Buddhas are distinguished one from another either by the iconographic attribute they hold or by the mudra in which they hold their hands. (A ritual hand gesture, a mudra symbolizes a particular action, power, or attitude of a deity.)

Both the mudra and the myrobalan fruit he holds in his right hand identify the figure on the left as Bhaisajyaguru, the Medicine Buddha. According to traditional iconographic conventions, Bhaisajyaguru is portrayed with the left hand in the lap, palm up, in the dhyana-mudra, or meditation gesture, and with the right hand lowered over the right knee, palm out, in the varada-mudra, or gift-giving gesture, signifying that he is preaching. In many representations, as here, he holds a single (highly stylized) myrobalan fruit between the thumb and index finger of the lowered right hand. Though absent here, Bhaisajyaguru often holds in his left hand a bowl or small jar containing amrita, the nectar of the myrobalan fruit, which is considered both the nectar of immortality and the medicine to heal all ills. (Known as a patra in Sanskrit, the bowl is termed a bo in Chinese.)

Called the Medicine Buddha in English and Yaoshifo in Chinese, Bhaisajyaguru is the Buddha of the Eastern Paradise of Pure Lapis Lazuli ; he shows unbiased compassion for all living beings. As revealed by the Bhaishajyaguruvaiduryaprabharaja Sutra, known as the Medicine Buddha Sutra in English, he protects all beings from illness—whether physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual—just as he also protects them from other dangers and obstacles; in addition, he helps them to eradicate the three poisons — attachment, hatred, and ignorance — which are the source of all passions, delusions, illnesses, and dangers.

The central figure in this triad is Shakyamuni, the Historical Buddha, who holds his hands in the bhumisparsa-mudra, or earth-touching gesture, symbolizing the moment of his enlightenment, when he summoned the earth to witness this momentous achievement. In the bhumisparsa-mudra, Shakyamuni holds his left hand in the lap, palm up, in the dhyana-mudra, or meditation gesture, and lowers his right hand over the right knee, palm facing inward. Though he may be shown any one of several different mudras, Shakyamuni is most characteristically shown in the bhumisparsa-mudra, as it emblemizes his enlightenment.

Shakyamuni was born into the royal Shakya Clan as Gautama Siddhartha in what today is Nepal around 563 BC. Though a crown prince, Prince Siddhartha rejected worldly life as well as all claim to his father’s throne, espoused the religious life, attained enlightenment, preached the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-fold Path, and, on his death at age eighty, c. 483 BC, entered nirvana. The Four Noble Truths and the Eight-fold Path constitute the basic, foundational teachings of Buddhism. His teachings appear in many Buddhist sutras but are best reflected in the Saddharma Pundarika Sutra, known in English as the Lotus Sutra and in Chinese as the Miaofa Lianhua Jing. Since the time of his enlightenment he has been known as Shakyamuni, or the Lion of the Shakya Clan; as an historical person, he has also come to be known as the Historical Buddha.

Like Shakyamuni, the Buddha Amitabha, the figure on this triad’s right, may hold his hands in one of several different mudras, but he is typically shown with has his hands in the dhyana-mudra, or meditation gesture, with the hands in the lap, the right hand resting atop the left, and with palms facing upward. In the case of Amitabha’s mudras, the hands are often positioned so that one finger of each hand touches the thumb, forming a circle, thereby distinguishing Amitabha from the otherwise similarly presented Shakyamuni. In those mudras in which fingers form a circle with the thumb, the particular fingers touching the thumb indicate the level of paradise on which Amitabha is preaching (or, in other instances, the level of paradise on which he is meditating). In the present sculpture of Amitabha, as in most Ming representations of Amitabha, the tips of the two thumbs touch, thereby forming a circle, while the other fingers lie flat.

The principal deity of the Pure Land sect of Buddhism, Amitabha, whose name means “immeasurable light”, is known for his longevity, discernment, pure perception, purification of the aggregates, and deep awareness of the emptiness of all phenomena. According to the Longer Sukhavativyuha Sutra, he possesses innumerable merits resulting from the good deeds he performed during his countless past lives as a bodhisattva. (A bodhisattva is a benevolent, selfless being who has attained enlightenment but has postponed entry into nirvana in order to help other sentient beings gain enlightenment; once all sentient beings have attained enlightenment, all bodhisattvas will become Buddhas.) Amitabha resides in the paradise known in Sanskrit as Sukhavati and English as the Western Pure Land, sometimes also called the Western Paradise. Amitabha is additionally known as the Buddha of Infinite Light, or Wuliangguang, and as the Buddha of Infinite Life, or Wuliangshou, the two names sometimes combined as Wuliangguangshou.

Each Buddha sits on an elaborate lotus base. The large, multi-tiered lotus blossom on which each Buddha appears rises from pond with low-relief, swirling waves enclosed by a post-and-rail fence, each post topped by a lotus-bud-shaped finial. The pond and surrounding balustrade sit atop a hexagonal plinth whose shape, configuration, and bracketed lower border recall the appearance of the bases of fine Ming, hardwood furniture. In fact, the plinths of these lotus bases—i.e., the bracketed lower borders and the post-and-rail balustrades—resemble the wooden display stands created to support revered antiquities in the Ming period.

From early times through the Song dynasty (960–1279), Buddhas were typically shown with their associated bodhisattvas, so that the term “triad” denoted an ensemble with a central Buddha flanked by a bodhisattva on either side and occasionally with disciples and other figures, as witnessed by the Tang-dynasty triad (with additional attendants) in the collection of San Francisco's Asian Art Museum (B60B8+).[2] In such triads, which replicate a temple altar in miniature, Shakyamuni is usually depicted with bodhisattvas Manjushri and Samantabhadra, just as Buddhas Amitabha and Bhaisajyaguru are grouped with their appropriate bodhisattvas. By the early fifteenth century and likely under Tibetan influence, the three Buddhas in the present ensemble had begun to be featured together as a triad, as they often would be through the Qing dynasty(1644–1911), even though traditional Buddha-bodhisattva triads also continued to be produced.

These Buddhas are presented in a classical Chinese style that descends from that of the Tang (618–907) and Song (960–1279) dynasties rather than in the Tibeto-Chinese style favored by the Imperial Court from the early fifteenth century onward. Still idealized, these Buddhas possess a definite corporeality of a type distinctive to Ming Buddhist sculpture. The full rounded faces, the large downcast eyes, the outturned earlobes, the fleshy cheeks and chins with the mouth small and slightly recessed, and the slender noses with sides that spring upward in continuous arcs to form the eyebrows indicate that these sculptures date to the mid- to late Ming period, likely to the sixteenth or early seventeenth century, as do the figures’ long fingers and the robes’ elaborate floral borders that recall the floral arabesques on many Ming porcelains. In addition, the bases’ hexagonal plinths with a balustrade surrounding a pond with low-relief waves are in a style that became fashionable in the mid- to late Ming.

Although it had appeared as early as the twelfth century,[3] the cudamani, or “crown jewel”—the unembellished relief ellipse immediately below the ushnisha—only became a standard iconographic attribute of Buddhas beginning in the Ming dynasty. Literally meaning “a jewel worn atop the head”, the cudamani is an emblem of excellence denoting one who has made great achievements and has passed beyond life and death. Like the cudamani, the wan ? symbol, seen on the chest of these figures, soared to popularity in the Ming dynasty. Though typically inscribed on a Buddha’s chest, the wan symbol—also termed the right-hand, or clockwise, swastika—often also appears on the palms of his hands and on the soles of his feet. It has ancient, if obscure, origins; before its adoption by Buddhists, it was associated with the Hindu god Vishnu, appearing on his chest as an auspicious emblem. It is believed to emblemize the Heart of the Buddha Shakyamuni as well as resignation of spirit, universal happiness, infinity, and much more.

The sculptures’ large size and superb casting suggest that this triad was made for a major temple, perhaps commissioned by an important patron as a pious gift. It is rare to find an intact set of three Buddhas outside a temple, particularly a set with all bases intact, which signals the importance of this triad. The few related sculptures with original stands known outside of temple settings are now individual, stand-alone sculptures; each was likely originally part of a set but is now divorced from its ensemble. Those examples include a gilt bronze Bhaisajyaguru that sold at Sotheby’s, London, on 7 November 2018 (Lot 61),[4] another gilt bronze Bhaisajyaguru that sold at Sotheby’s, Paris, on 11 June 2019 (Lot 28),[5] and a gilt bronze Shakyamuni that sold at Sotheby’s, New York, on 23 March 2011 (Lot 692).[6] A large, late Ming, gilt-bronze figure of a crowned Bodhisattva Guanyin with a closely related bronze base sold at Christie’s, London, on 14 May 2018 (Lot 166).[7]

A kindred late Ming, gilt-bronze sculpture representing a Seated Amitabha (but with a base in a different style) is in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei.[8] Other sixteenth- to early seventeenth-century, gilt-bronze sculptures that relate closely in style to those in this triad but that have lost their bases include the two sculptures depicting Amitabha that were formerly in the collection of the Chang Foundation Museum, Taipei, established by renowned connoisseur-collector Zhang Tiangen (1914–1996), and that were sold at Sotheby’s, New York, on 10 September 2019 (Lots 306[9] and 313[10]), as well as the two similar, if much smaller, sculptures representing Bhaisajyaguru and Amitabha—perhaps two sculptures from an original set of three—that sold at Christie’s, New York, on 13 September 2019 (Lot 852).[11]

Likely commissioned by a wealthy patron as a pious gift to a major temple, this rare triad embodies the classical Chinese sculptural style as interpreted in the mid- to late Ming period, in contrast to the contemporaneous Tibeto-Chinese style that was popular in court circles. In excellent condition and with a long, European provenance, this ensemble numbers among the few intact triads outside China—or even in China, for that matter—the presence of the original bases making the ensemble all the more rare and important.

Robert D. Mowry
Alan J. Dworsky Curator of Chinese Art Emeritus,
Harvard Art Museums, and
Senior Consultant, Christie’s

[1] The urna is variously termed and in Chinese; the ray of light issuing from the urna is generally termed. In fact, many Hindu deities indeed have a third eye at the center of the forehead, but Buddhist deities, and particularly the Buddhas, have a magical curl of hair between the eyebrows. The urna is one of the thirty-two special physical characteristics of the Buddha, known as the Thirty-Two Signs of a Great Man. This refers to the mahapurusa laksana, known in Chinese as the xianghao, with xiang referring to the thirty-two major marks, and hao to the eighty secondary signs on the physical body of the Buddha.
[2] See: http://onlinecollection.asianart.org/view/objects/asitem/search@/0?t:state:flow=2615e11b-1ab6-4915-8f2c-a3f3a6e5503f
[3] See: Denise Patry Leidy, Donna Strahan et al., Wisdom Embodied: Chinese Buddhist and Daoist Sculpture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art; and New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press), 2010, pp. 129-131, no. 29; also see: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/61656?ft=32.148&offset=0&rpp=40&pos=1
[4] See: https://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2018/important-chinese-art-l18212/lot.61.html?locale=en
[5] See: https://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2019/arts-dasie-pf1907/lot.28.html?locale=en
[6] See: https://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2011/fine-chinese-ceramics-and-works-of-art-n08726/lot.692.html?locale=en
[7] See: https://www.christies.com/lot/lot-6140164?ldp_breadcrumb=back&intObjectID=6140164&from=salessummary&lid=1
[8] See: https://blog.udn.com/mobile/cty43115/113725278
[9] See: https://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2019/bodies-of-infinite-light-n10233/lot.306.html?locale=en
[10] See: https://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2019/bodies-of-infinite-light-n10233/lot.313.html?locale=en
[11] See: https://www.christies.com/lot/lot-6220313?ldp_breadcrumb=back&intObjectID=6220313&from=salessummary&lid=1

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