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The magnificent, meditational deity strides in alidhasana on animals and prostrate figures over a double-lotus base. In his primary hands, he holds a curved knife pressed to a skull cup, while the others are outstretched and in various gestures. He wears a skirt of beaded festoons and is adorned with various jewelry, snakes, streaming ribbons, and a garland of severed heads. The central buffalo-form head is wrathful in expression, with open mouth and bared fangs, bulging eyes, and flaming brows below horns and a foliate tiara, and is flanked and surmounted by wrathful human faces and the peaceful visage of Manjushri.
38 7/8 in. (98.8 cm.) high
'Collection G.', by 1904.
Oeuvres d'Art de Haute Curiosité du Tibet formant La Première Partie de la Collection G..., Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 21-24 November 1904, lot 464.
Private collection, France, 1930s, and thence by descent.
Sale Room Notice
This Lot is Withdrawn.

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Lot Essay

This impressively cast and rare monumentally-sized figure of Vajrabhairava is among the largest and most significant works of Tibeto-Chinese sculpture to appear on the market in several years. The unprecedented size and level of detail suggests it was produced in the imperial workshops of Beijing in the 15th century, a period of wide-reaching cultural exchange and religious efflorescence within Ming China.

Following the tumultuous transition from the Yuan dynasty to the Ming in 1368, the 15th century witnessed the expansion of religious and artistic patronage. The Yongle Emperor (r. 1402-1424) was a supporter of the Three Teachings (Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism), and understood the political capital to be gained through imperial support of the various institutions. He credited the Daoist deity Zhenwu, the Perfected Warrior, for his successful usurpation of power from his nephew, the Jianwen Emperor, and ordered the construction of a massive Daoist temple complex at Wudang Shan; at the same time, he followed in the tradition of Kublai Khan in inviting important Tibetan Buddhist dignitaries to his court. In contrast to the Yuan dynasty, when Kublai Khan maintained near-direct control of much of East Asia, the early Ming emperors relied on political alliances and tribute missions to influence external regions such as Tibet and Mongolia.

In 1406, the Yongle Emperor invited Deshin Shekpa, the Fifth Karmapa and head of the Karma Kagyu sect to Nanjing, where he spent two years as a spiritual advisor to the Emperor. Similarly, he requested Tsongkhapa, head of the reformist Gelugpa sect, to visit in both 1408 and 1413; while he declined to make the trip himself, Tsongkhapa sent his disciple, Shakya Yeshe, who remained in the capital for ten years. The result of this fruitful relationship was the increase of imperially-sponsored Buddhist activities in China. Lavish gifts were exchanged between the visiting dignitaries and the Emperor (including a highly important imperial embroidered silk thangka of Rakta Yamari, sold at Christie’s Hong Kong, 26 November 2014, lot 3001). The Yongle Emperor also moved the capital from Nanjing to Beijing, which had previously been the capital during the Yuan dynasty, and was still an important Buddhist pilgrimage site for Mongolian Buddhists. The Emperor sponsored the construction of numerous Tibetan Buddhist temples within the capital, and his successors maintained this lavish patronage.

Stylistically, the present lot follows the Nepalese tradition established in Beijing during the Yuan dynasty. The Tibetan Chogyal Pagpa (1235-1280), abbot of Sakya monastery and personal guru to Kublai Khan, invited the esteemed Nepalese artisan, Araniko (also spelled Aniko or Anige), to Beijing, where he was appointed head of the imperially-sponsored atelier. During this time, most of the Buddhist craftsmen working in Beijing were Nepalese or Tibetan, and they followed Tibetan iconographic parameters. During the Ming dynasty, these iconographic and stylistic elements were largely retained, although the greater involvement of Chinese artisans resulted in a gradual sinicization of the style, especially apparent in the present work in the facial features of the prostrate figures.
Vajrabhairava is an important deity in all sects of Tibetan Buddhism, but perhaps none more so than in the Gelug school. The founder of that tradition, Tsongkhapa, popularized the worship of Vajrabhairava in the 14th century, and also systemized his represented iconography; among other aspects, the arrangement of the additional faces in a circular manner around the back of the head became almost exclusively reserved for Gelugpa depictions of the deity. As this feature is present in the current work, one can ascertain that it was created according to Gelugpa principles. Within that tradition, Vajrabhairava is one of the principle meditation deities of the Anuttarayoga practice, alongside Guhyasamaja and Chakrasamvara. He is considered a wrathful manifestation of Manjushri; significantly, Tsongkhapa as well as the Chinese emperor were also considered manifestations of this bodhisattva, explaining in part his popularity within China and Gelug-Tibet. The Gelugpa enjoyed increased importance amongst the emperors of the Ming dynasty, thanks in part to Shakya Yeshe’s prolonged presence in the capital; from the mid-17th century on, they were the dominant theocratic power in Tibet, and the sole represented Tibetan Buddhist institution in China.

Among the most impressive of the Chinese-made Buddhist images from this period are a group of monumentally-sized gilt-bronzes, of which the present figure is one of just a handful known. A group of large-scale gilt-bronzes was offered at an important early sale of Asian art at Hôtel Drouot in Paris in 1904 (Fig. 1). Among the group were two other figures of Vajrabhairava, including one which was dated with a mark to the reign of the Chenghua Emperor, and which was subsequently offered by Rare Art Inc. in 1975 (Fig. 2), and another published in numerous publications and last offered on the market at Sotheby’s New York, 25 March 1999, lot 122 (Fig. 3). The present work is the largest of the three Vajrabhairava figures, and is the only one to depict the deity without his consort, Vajra Vetali. The other massive gilt-bronze sculptures from the collection include a figure of Mahachakravajrapani, now in the Linden-Museum, Stuttgart; a figure of Guhyasamaja at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco; a standing bodhisattva now in the Musée Cernuschi, Paris; and a figure of Nilamahakala, the whereabouts of which is now unknown (see U. von Schroeder, Indo-Tibetan Bronzes, Hong Kong, 1981, p. 530, nos. 151B, 151D, 151E and 151A). Also related is a standing figure of Mahakala originally from the Nitta Collection and exhibited at the National Palace Museum (see The Crucible of Compassion and Wisdom: Special Exhibition Catalog of the Buddhist Bronzes from the Nitta Group Collection at the National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1987, p. 126, pl. 32).

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