This rare and superbly modeled and enameled figure depicts a luohan, also known as an arhat, a devout Buddhist who attained enlightenment. Although they are considered holy in India, arhats only became figures of devotion when Buddhism spread to Tibet. Amongst these figures, a group of sixteen has been singled out as the most revered, and as Tibetan Buddhism was adopted by the Qing Imperial court to be the primary religion, these sixteen figures were frequently depicted in different media. The present figure depicts the sixteenth of this group, Abhedya, holding a censer.
The Qing emperors were devout Buddhists and followed the practice of luohan worship. It is known that when the Qianlong Emperor visited Sheng'en Temple in Hangzhou in 1757, he was invited to view a painting of the Sixteen Luohan by the revered Five Dynasties monk-painter Guan Xiu and was immediately fascinated by it. He even ordered his court painter Ding Guanpeng to replicate Guan Xiu’s painting, and composed poems to eulogize the image. As a result, works of art depicting the sixteen Luohan in Guan Xiu’s style became one of the frequent tribute offerings by high-ranking officials to the emperor.
However, porcelain figures of luohan from the first half of the 18th century such as the present figure are extremely rare. According to Comprehensive Records of Zaobanchu Workshops, in the fourty-fifth year of the Qianlong reign, an Imperial command was issued to the Imperial Household Department for four zitan altar tables in the Ningshou Palace displaying ceramic luohan to be adjusted in size (see Annotated Collection of Historical Documents on Ancient Chinese Ceramics, Taipei, 2000, p. 266). From this palace record we know that ceramic luohan figures were displayed within the palace, and were placed within the prestigious Ningshou Palace, the Qianlong Emperor’s retirement retreat. The fact that four zitan altar tables were needed suggests that not only one luohan figure was displayed, but likely a whole set of sixteen or even more.
Besides the present figure, only a handful of similar famille rose figures of luohan on rock-form seats are known, and all depict different luohan. One was sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 29 October 1991, lot 267, and is shown seated with the robe open at front and modeled with raised hands. Two figures, more similar in modeling and enameling to the present figure, were sold at Christie’s London, 10 November 2015, lot 304, and two other examples were sold at Christie’s Hong Kong, 3 June 2015, lot 3020.
It is interesting to note that the present figure, and the two cited above that were sold at Christie’s Hong Kong, were all incised on the rock bases with numbers and cardinal directions. The Hong Kong pair was inscribed with dong si ('east four') and dong ba ('east eight'). It is possible that these inscriptions may refer to a numbering system for their placement in a specific order and location within sets of sixteen.