A highly important and rare bronze figure of Buddha
A highly important and rare bronze figure of Buddha


A highly important and rare bronze figure of Buddha
Gandhara, 6th/7th century
Standing with his right hand raised in abhayamudra and the left hanging at his side, dressed in a billowing robe draped over both shoulders, the face with full lips and heavy-lidded eyes with the locks of hair pulled up and tied in a topknot, backed by a combined nimbus and aureole with a band of flying geese, the two at the top with a strand of jewels issuing from their mouths, surrounded by foliate bands, all within a border of radiating spokes
14¼ in. (36.2 cm.) high
Private Collection, Tokyo
Eurasian Art, acquired in 1982
Private collection, Kyoto, 1982-2004
Private collection, New York, 2004-2013

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Lot Essay

This magnificent figure of Buddha belongs to an extremely rare type of bronze cast in the regions of ancient Gandhara and the Swat Valley in the 5th through 7th centuries. The figure is one of the largest of its type, and it still carries its backplate, a combined nimbus and aureole with radiating spokes with an extremely rare motif of flying geese. The solidly cast bronze is a masterpiece of the Buddha image, which illustrates the profound marriage of the contemporary Gupta style with the earlier influences of Hellenistic Gandhara.
The ancient region of Gandhara, straddling the Khyber Pass in what is now eastern Afghanistan and western Pakistan, was for centuries an important center of trade and commerce due to its position at the crossroads between India, China, and the Mediterranean world. In the centuries before the beginning of the Common Era, the region came under Hellenistic control after Alexander the Great annexed Gandhara to his expansive empire and later the Gangetic regions of central India during the reign of the great Mauryan emperor Ashoka. Buddhism had been well established during this time, with the Indo-Greek king Menander and Ashoka himself acting as important royal propagators of the faith, but it is not until the time of the Kushans in the early centuries CE, almost simultaneously in Gandhara and Mathura in Central India, that images of the Buddha in anthropomorphic form appear.
Gandhara during the Kushan period was a fervent center of Buddhism, with thousands of monasteries sprawled across the wide riverine plains and tucked away in the more remote valleys north of the Kabul River. The demand for images of the Buddha was great and the vast quantity of works in schist and stucco, and to a lesser degree terracotta and bronze, illustrates the rich artistic tradition of the region. The decline of the Kushans, however, precipitated the invasion of the Huns in the middle of the 5th century, and the peace and splendor of Gandhara was destroyed. Those that survived sought refuge in the remote valleys of Swat and the Hindu Kush, where Buddhism quietly endured until the invasion of Muslim forces in the 10th and 11th centuries.
During the 5th - 7th centuries, the period referred to as Post-Gandhara, the production of large Buddhist works in stone and stucco declined, while the creation of smaller scale images in bronze reached a zenith. This phenomenon must be explained in part by the new conditions of Buddhist worship during this time; except for certain sites such as Bamiyan, the large and wealthy monasteries of the previous era had been replaced by smaller, migratory groups of worshippers. The Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang, who traveled to India in the first half of the 7th century, described the situation in Swat as follows: "There had formerly been 1400 monasteries but many of these were now in ruins, and once there had been 18,000 [Buddhist] Brethren but these had gradually decreased until only a few remained" (U. von Schroeder, Indo-Tibetan Bronzes, 1981, p. 72). Pushed to the margins of society, the Buddhist adherents could no longer afford to commission large and permanently installed works. Images in stucco were extremely fragile, while works in schist were too heavy to transport. Bronze, on the other hand, was durable, and when scaled down to a small size and cast in several parts, could be bundled up and carried from place to place. Despite the reduced size, the present work would no doubt have been an expensive and precious object of veneration.
Stylistically and iconographically, the present work conforms to the related group of bronzes from the region that have variably been dated to the 5th through 7th centuries. Buddha is shown standing with his right hand in abhayamudra, while the left hangs at his side in a gesture that is intended to represent him holding the folds of his sanghati. The sanghati is draped over both shoulders and forms a distinct V-shape at the chest that is found in many of the late Gandharan bronzes. While some of the late Gandharan bronzes display Gupta-style characteristics, such as stylized drapery folds and a fleshy body type, the present work clearly references classical Gandharan sculpture. The folds of the robe fall in asymmetrical naturalistic pleats and reveal a subtle contrapposto stance and the body's lithe form underneath. Similarly, other bronzes from the region depict the hair in tight curls, an Indian convention that is largely adopted in later Swat, Kashmiri, and Himalayan bronzes. The Gandharan manner is to show wavy locks of hair tied in a topknot - while partially stylized in the current work, it nonetheless references the Gandharan convention. Surprisingly, Buddha is depicted in the present example wearing a simple bracelet on his left wrist; upon leaving the palatial life of his upbringing, Gautama Buddha is said to have relinquished all the finery of his previous lifestyle, including his jewelry. In design, the bracelet appears to resemble a hinged armlet, similar to an example at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (see K. Behrendt, The Art of Gandhara in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2007, p. 16, cat. no. 11).
The combined nimbus and aureole backplate of the present work is related to the small group of late Gandharan bronzes where the backplate has survived, including two figures at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but with an unprecedented flourish of details. Art historians have labeled the unusual radiating spokes as a 'pearl-and-oval' pattern - a lozenge that extends from a single bead and terminates in three beads arranged in a triangle. The exact significance of the shape is unclear, although some have suggested the three beads may relate to the triratna, the 'Three Jewels' of Buddhism - the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha (brotherhood of monks). The form is clearly related to the stucco halos found in niches in the caves of Bamiyan, dated to the late 6th and early 7th centuries, and it is partly through the connection of the two halo types that scholars have dated the corpus of the late Gandhara bronzes. The radiating spokes of the backplate provide a visual dynamism in juxtaposition with the restrained pose of the Buddha and may represent the omnipotence of Buddha's law.
The band of flying geese worked in low relief around the edge of the nimbus and aureole is without precedent in the halos of the late Gandhara bronzes, and it distinguishes the present example as one of the most unusual of the group. The hamsa (goose) is a traditional Indian symbol for the soul, and it represents the notion of reincarnation. The geese are thus an appropriate visual symbol for the Buddhist pursuit of transformation. The hamsa is found in some of the funerary art of Gandhara, including a reliquary in the form of a goose in the British Museum (see W. Zwalf, Gandhara Sculpture in the British Museum, 1985, p. 345, cat. no. 657).
When seen as a repeated motif in a running band, however, the goose motif immediately references the 'Kanishka' casket unearthed at Shah-ji-ki-Dheri in Peshawar, reputedly containing the relics of Kanishka I (see E. Errington and J. Cribb (eds.), Crossroads of Asia, 1992, p. 193, cat. no. 193). While the casket's association with the great monarch has been called into question, it can be said with certainty to have been discovered within the remains of an enormous stupa produced in the Kushan era. The casket depicts images of the Buddha, a Kushan king identified as Kanishka, and several attendant deities, all below a band of flying geese holding wreaths in their mouths. Because the hamsa appears here and elsewhere in a royal context, it has been argued that the Kushan rulers adopted the goose as a royal symbol. While the present work certainly post-dates the Kushan period, it is possible the artist included the band of hamsas as another icon of Buddha's regal status.
The impressive size of the present example coupled with the unusual iconography of the backplate help to further distinguish the bronze amongst an already rare group. Such works would have been carried by itinerant monks as well as traveling merchants across the trade routes of Asia, and the influence of the late Gandhara style can be detected as far away as China, Korea, and Japan.

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