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A SUPERBLY CARVED MASSIVE WHITE MARBLE TORSO OF BUDDHA
A SUPERBLY CARVED MASSIVE WHITE MARBLE TORSO OF BUDDHA
A SUPERBLY CARVED MASSIVE WHITE MARBLE TORSO OF BUDDHA
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A SUPERBLY CARVED MASSIVE WHITE MARBLE TORSO OF BUDDHA

EARLY TANG DYNASTY, LATE 7TH-8TH CENTURY

Details
A SUPERBLY CARVED MASSIVE WHITE MARBLE TORSO OF BUDDHA
EARLY TANG DYNASTY, LATE 7TH-8TH CENTURY
The figure sits in dhyanasana on a lotus base above a waisted octagonal lotiform base, with the left hand resting on the knee. The muscular, upright torso is clad in diaphanous robes draped over the left shoulder, with the folds piled over the sole of the foot and continuing over the front of the base.
47 ½ in. (120 cm.) high, wood pedestal
Provenance
Christie's Hong Kong, 28 April 1996, lot 566.
Mayuyama Ryusendo, Tokyo.
Literature
Matsubara Saburo, Bukkyo Geijutsu, vol. 230, Tokyo, 1997, fig. 1.
Sun Di (ed.), Comprehensive Illustrated Catalogue of Chinese Buddhist Sculptures in Overseas Collections, vol. 5, Beijing, 2005, p. 1027.

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Lot Essay

This magnificent sculpture embodies a profound spirituality achieved through the remarkable plasticity of drapery and form. The figure represents a Buddha seated on a double-lotus pedestal and presumably engaged in preaching. The Buddha assumes the dhyanasana pose, a classic yogic posture in which the legs are locked in full-lotus position with the soles of the feet upturned, in this case, with the sole of the right foot visible through the diaphanous robe. The monk’s robes, which the Buddha wears, are arrayed to cover the proper left shoulder but to expose the right. The double-lotus pedestal is tiered, with an octagonal base symbolizing the Buddha’s Eight Fold Path, a circular top in the form of an open lotus blossom, and a constricted, eight-lobed, rounded central section that bridges the transition from octagonal base to the circular top.

The Buddha’s left hand rests on his left knee, palm facing inward. The right arm, now missing, likely was raised in the abhayamudra, or gesture of “do not fear”, which would indicate that the Buddha is preaching. The previous identification of this Buddha’s mudra as the bhumisparshamudra, or earth-touching gesture, which symbolizes the Buddha’s enlightenment, cannot be maintained. In the bhumisparshamudra the Historical Buddha Sakyamuni is shown seated, his left hand resting in his lap, the palm turned upward, his right hand extended over his right knee to touch the earth in order to call it to witness his enlightenment. The canonical texts clearly state that the Buddha touched the earth with his right hand. If the missing right arm indeed was raised in the abhayamudra, then the placement of the left hand on the knee might be regarded as a variation of the varadamudra, the gift-giving gesture, also associated with preaching. Moreover, if the right arm displayed the abhayamudra then the present sculpture likely represented either the Historical Buddha Sakyamuni or Amitabha, the Buddha of Boundless Light, in a preaching mode. Because the sculpture lacks an identifying inscription, not to mention its right arm and any distinguishing iconographic attributes, the exact identity of this Buddha likely will remain an enigma.

This sculpture’s elegant yet naturalistic style dates it to the late seventh century or possibly to the very beginning of the eighth. The torso’s broad shoulders and narrow waist are more naturalistically defined and the chest more descriptively modeled than those of sculptures from the Northern Qi (AD 550–575) and Sui (AD 518–618) dynasties—and also those from the first decades of the Tang dynasty (AD 618–907)—all of which tend to be more smooth and columnar in character. Clinging tightly, the diaphanous drapery clearly reveals the body’s form, even clearly outlining the form of the right foot resting the Buddha’s lap; the arrangement of the drapery also points to the sculpture’s late seventh- or very early eighth-century date, as do the drapery folds, particularly those over the arm and abdomen, which recall well-designed, well-tailored pleats. By contrast the drapery folds of Buddha images from the Northern Qi and Sui dynasties are characteristically indicated by incised lines or relief ridges. (See Wai-kam Ho “Notes on Chinese Sculpture from Northern Ch’i to Sui, Part I: Two Seated Stone Buddha in the Cleveland Museum”, Archives of Asian Art, 22, 1968-1969, p. 6, fig 1; and Matsubara Saburo, Chugoku Bukkyo Chokoku Shiron [A History of Chinese Buddhist Sculpture], illustration vol. 2, Later Six Dynasties and Sui, Tokyo: Yoshikawa Kobunkan, 1995, pp. 489-491.) As demonstrated by a Seated Buddha in the collection of the Nelson-Atkins Museum (F85-11), Kansas City, Missouri, and by another in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, sculptures of the Buddha from later in the eighth century appear fleshier, and thus heavier; in addition, their robes are more voluminous, and their drapery folds are less formally patterned in the manner of pleats. Moreover, the voluminous drapery of the slightly later sculptures often cascades over the edge and down the front of the double-lotus pedestal, in many instances completely concealing the pedestal’s upper tier. (For the Kansas City Buddha, see Sun Di, ed. Comprehensive Illustrated Catalogue of Chinese Buddhist Sculptures in Overseas Collections, vol. 5, Beijing, 2005, p. 1008. For Los Angeles County Museum of Art, see W. Watson, Art of Dynastic China, New York, 1981, color plate 80.)

That the drapery on the right side of the torso is complete and undisturbed—i.e., it remained undamaged when the figure lost its right arm—implies that there was open space between torso and right arm, a feature of many seventh and early eighth-century Chinese sculptures of the Buddha. In fact, sculptors first took delight in incorporating openwork elements into their sculptures in the Northern Qi period, often piercing the space between the right arm and the torso, a characteristic that continued into the early Tang. At the beginning of the eighth century, sculptors began to alter the configuration of the Buddha’s drapery so that the edge of the robe descended from the left shoulder, traversed the chest and abdomen, looped behind the right arm, and then rose to cover the outer portion of the right shoulder, thus filling the previously open space between torso and right arm. That new arrangement of the Buddha’s robe became standard from the early eighth century onward, as evinced by the Seated Buddhas in Kansas City and Los Angeles mentioned above.

An early eighth-century Seated Buddha now in the collection of the Harvard Art Museums (1943.53.22) perhaps best demonstrates the transition from the seventh-century style to the mature Tang style of the eighth century. (See S. Wolohojian, (ed.), Harvard Art Museums Handbook, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2008. p. 35.) Like the present marble Buddha, the Harvard Buddha has broad shoulders, a slender waist, and diaphanous drapery. In addition, its drapery folds, which resemble tailored pleats, are very close in style to those of the present marble Buddha. In contrast to the elegantly smooth, slightly abstract rendering the marble Buddha’s torso, the chest of the Harvard Buddha is clearly differentiated from the abdomen, just as the pectorals are clearly distinguished right from left. Moreover, the Harvard Buddha’s clinging drapery reveals even more of the body’s structure than does that of the present marble Buddha, giving a very precise description of the underside of the figure’s left foot, for example. Though more voluminous than that of the present marble Buddha, the Harvard Buddha’s drapery is less abundant than that of the Kansas City and Los Angeles Buddhas; as with those two Buddhas, however, the Harvard Buddha’s drapery covers the space between torso and right arm, a signal difference from the arrangement of the present marble Buddha’s drapery. Though close in style, the two Buddhas likely were created a few decades apart, the Harvard Buddha in the early eighth century, and the present marble Buddha in the late seventh century or at the very beginning of the eighth.

The pedestal also speaks to the sculpture’s late seventh- or very early eighth-century date. Although double-lotus pedestal had appeared by the Northern Qi and Sui periods, the upper and lower elements of those sixth-century pedestals typically are similar in size and shape, and, in fact, are near mirror images of each other. In addition, the cylindrical column or octagonal pier connecting upper and lower tiers was only modestly constricted and thus did not inject the note of drama characteristic of late seventh- and eighth-century examples. (See Matsubara Saburo, Chugoku Bukkyo Chokoku Shiron [A History of Chinese Buddhist Sculpture], illustration vol. 2, Later Six Dynasties and Sui, Tokyo: Yoshikawa Kobunkan, 1995, pp. 489-491. Also see Wai-kam Ho “Notes on Chinese Sculpture from Northern Ch’i to Sui, Part I: Two Seated Stone Buddha in the Cleveland Museum”, Archives of Asian Art, 22, 1968-1969, p. 9, fig 2; p. 10, fig. 5; p. 19, fig. 15; p. 26, fig. 27; p. 28, fig. 32; p. 30, fig. 36.) Double-lotus pedestals from the second half of the seventh century and very beginning of the eighth rank among the most dramatic of all, as witnessed by that of the present marble Buddha, which has an octagonal lower element and a circular upper element, the transition from octagonal to circular bridged by an elaborate and dramatically constricted central post. A few decades into the eighth century the lotus petals of the upper tier would become more sculptural and more fully three-dimensional, their tips supporting the cascading drapery in a series of rhythmically spaced and harmoniously arranged points; in addition, the central connecting post would become shorter, less elaborate, and less dramatic as the cascading drapery covering the pedestal’s upper tier obviated the need for an aesthetic bridge to harmonize upper and lower elements. (For mature eighth-century, double-lotus pedestals, see the Kansas City and Los Angeles Buddha mentioned above.)

Only occasionally encountered among Chinese Buddhist sculptures, white marble first rose to popularity during the Northern Qi period, when sculptors occasionally carved Buddhist images in beautiful white marble from Dingzhou, in southwest Hebei province. Although a quarry site can never be taken the probable site at which a particular image was sculpted, the use of white marble nevertheless suggests that this extraordinary sculpture might have been carved in the vicinity of Dingzhou, likely in Hebei or Shanxi province.

Traces of polychromy, evident on the double-lotus pedestal, suggest that the sculpture was once entirely painted, as were virtually all early Indian and Chinese Buddhist sculptures in wood and stone; the brilliant pigments of the sculptures and wall paintings at Dunhuang, in Gansu province, suggest that the original colors of this Buddha would have been stunning.

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

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