This magnificent image of Shakyamuni Buddha, rare for its combination of both the fire gilding and silver inlay techniques, is an exemplar of Himalayan casting technique and sculptural style. The Buddha is seated in vajraparyankasana, the classical diamond posture, recalling the seminal moment when he attained enlightenment under the bodhi tree in Bodhgaya where the Mahabodhi Temple now stands. With his right hand, he touches the ground in the gesture of bhumisparshamudra, asking the earth to bear witness to the truth of his teachings. His elongated earlobes, weighed down by the heavy earrings of his former princely life, represent his rejection of worldly goods. His simple robe, stitched from a patchwork of scraps, leaves his right shoulder bare, the custom of Buddhist monks in South and Southeast Asia when paying respect to a venerated holy site.
The smooth surface retains a thick layer of gold, applied using mercury gilding, conveying his inner radiance. While mixed silver and gilt decorated figures were often found in the earlier bronze casting centers of North India, including during the Pala period, they are incredibly rare for this early period of Tibetan art. Such a technique requires masterful expertise, and this example embodies the virtuosity of the Tibetan bronze casters of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
An almost identical silver-inlaid gilt-bronze figure of Buddha was sold at Christie’s Hong Kong on 31 May 2017, lot 2804 (fig 1). The Hong Kong example was lacking the separately-cast double-lotus base, which still exists with the present figure, but has short cylindrical pins below the knees, identical to those on the present figure, which help to secure the figure to the base. Apart from the missing base, and a turquoise-inlaid urna, which is now missing on the present figure, the two bronzes are indistinguishable in proportion and casting technique. The present work and the example from our Hong Kong sale are undoubtedly the product of the same workshop, and were likely produced around the same time, given the rarity and difficulty of the silver-inlay technique.
Compare the above two figures with a related but smaller figure, originally in the Pan-Asian Collection and personal collection of Robert Hatfield Ellsworth and now in a private collection (fig. 2). The Ellsworth figure, despite depicting a crowned Buddha, is remarkably similar in terms of sculptural decoration and style. The figure is dressed in a patchwork robe, with raised beaded hems in both silver and gold, and with an incised leaf pattern similar to that of the present example. While the Ellsworth figure is predominantly silver, the exposed skin and face of the figure was originally covered in cold gold, creating a shimmering contrast between the silver and gold areas. The present figure and the Hong Kong example magnify that contrasting effect by eschewing the cold gold for luminous fire gilding. Apart from the Ellsworth example, few other works of Tibetan sculpture combine silver and gilt decoration so successfully.
The present figure, the Hong Kong bronze, and the Ellsworth example share the same pinched waist, muscular upper body, and serene facial expression that reveal the influence of the Nepalese sculptural style. Indeed, the Nepalese style was prevalent throughout much of the Himalayas in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and in particular the central regions of Tibet, from which the present figure originates. The Newaris, the traditional inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley, were the master bronze casters of the period, and their services were patronized far and wide, including at the imperial workshops of the Yuan dynasty in Beijing. While the present figure exudes characteristics of Nepalese sculpture, the gilding and the tone of the bronze beneath identify this as a masterpiece made in Tibet.