Previously sold at Drouot, Paris, 27 November 1904, lot 2353, when this figure was catalogued by M. E. Deshayes of the Musée Guimet, as possibly the deity Kongoya-sha, and of Japanese origin (see fig. 1). This impressive figure was sold again at Sotheby's New York, 29 November 1993, lot 172, and identified as a Dharmapala (protector of the Dharma or the Buddhist Law); a manifestation of the demonic form of Vairocana, and dated to 15th century. Further research indicates that the present figure is more likely to be one of the five divinities known as Vidyarajas, or 'Bright Kings', in a wrathful form.
Vidyarajas (Ming Wang)
One of the most interesting features to note is the primary hands held in front of the muscular body in a rare gesture with the two hands joined by interlaced little fingers, palms upturned and outward. This formation is known as Trailokyavijayaraja mudra, the gesture of the 'two wings', and a movement of anger (fig. 2). This gesticulation is more commonly associated with Japanese esoteric sects which probably accounts for the deity being catalogued as Japanese when it was sold at Drouot in 1904. This unusual mudra is characteristic of the Vidyaraja, see L. Frederic, Buddhism, Paris, 1995, pl. 51.
The Vidyarajas, known in Chinese as 'Ming Wang', are kings of the mystic or magical knowledge symbolising power and victory over sentient passions and desires. It has been suggested that these mystic figures were ascribed with the power of protecting humans against evil influences by Buddhist monks, probably as early as the 13th century, ibid., p. 202. Each of the five Vidyarajas assume different forms, and based on the iconography of the present figure cast with its three-heads, three eyes, eight arms and gesture of Trailokyavijayaraja mudra, it is possible that this impressive figure could either represent a rare form of Trailokyavijaya, the 'Conqueror of the Three Worlds', or the Vajrayaksa. As most of the detachable attributes are now missing, it is difficult to ascertain which of the five 'Ming Wang' this imagery represented. Its identification is further complicated by several exceptional features, such as the numerous serpents, the falun wheel and delineation of the waves on the platform, that are not readily understood as there are limited comparable examples of this type.
Its atypical iconography: the distinctive facial features and its curious posture cast standing on a falun (Buddhist Wheel of the Law), suggest that this figure may be distinctively Chinese in development despite elements of Sino-Tibetan Tantric influence. Esoteric Buddhism, known as Mizong Jiao (lit: Secret Religion), was introduced from India into China between the 2nd and 8th centuries, and became a popular sect by the mid-Tang dynasty. Esoteric images from the Tang period are found amongst paintings from the Dunhuang caves, such as the ink on paper depiction of the Bodhisattva Ucchusma (one of the five Vidyarajas), formerly from the Stein Collection and now in the British Museum Collection, illustrated by R. Whitfield and A. Farrer, Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, Chinese art from the Silk Route, British Museum Press, 1989, p. 82, fig. 62. The Stein painting portrays a three-headed and four-armed Bodhisattva who is also identified as a Vidyaraja in the Vajrayaksa form because of the thunderbolt he carries.
By the Song dynasty, Esoteric Buddhism manifested in a number of sculptural forms and examples of Ming Wang figures can be seen among the Boadingshan stone carvings at Dazu, Sichuan province, cf. Hu Wenhe, An Yue Dazu Fodiao, 1999, p. 109, no. 41. Work on these Buddhist figures at Baodingshan was abruptly stopped when the Mongols invaded the area in 1249. These carvings reflected strong local influences as Confucian and Daoist themes are are found interspersed among Buddhist figures. It is possible to detect an element of Daoist influence in the present figure. In many Buddhist imageries, the falun is held in the hand but in this present sculpture it forms a pedestal on which the figure stands. This manner is very similar to a depiction of Marshal Wang, dated to 1542, in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, illustrated by S. Little, Taoism and the Arts of China, The Art Institute of Chicago, 2000, no. 88. The Metropolitan painting portrays Marshal Wang (Wang yuanshuai), a deified hero of the early Tang period, with a fearsome face bearing fangs, floating celestial scarves, standing on a 'flaming' wheel above a sea of serpents. Compare also another Daoist deity known as Tianhuabi yuanshuai who also stands on a 'flaming' wheel, illustrated in a woodblock print of the late Ming period, cf. Huitu Sanjiao Liuyuan Soushen Daquan, 1990, p. 198 (fig. 3).
It is known that Daoism came under Imperial patronage during the Yongle period. Although the Yongle Emperor himself was a renowned Buddhist, as a man of considerable military skills he also adopted the Daoist deity Zhenwu (Perfected Warrior) as his personal protector. When the Emperor moved his Court from Nanjing to Beijing, he commissioned the construction of the Hall of Imperial Peace, Qin'an Dian, which was built in the northernmost part of the Forbidden City. The Hall of Imperial Peace, which remains today, was devoted to Zhenwu and during subsequent reigns each Ming emperor announced his accession by paying homage to Zhenwu, cf. S. Little, ibid., p. 15.
Although there are limited published examples of gilt-bronze esoteric figures from the Ming period, the intricate depiction of the billowing scarves, powerful hand movement, and naturalistic musculature of the body and limbs, are all related to large Buddhist bronze figures of the 15th and 16th centuries. Compare for example, two massive Buddhist Guardian figures dated to the 16th century, from the Nezu Museum and Nitta Collections, included in the exhibition, The Crucible of Compassion and Wisdom, National Palace Museum, Taiwan, 1987, and illustrated in the Catalogue, pls. 217 and 218; the larger measuring 216 cm. high. Also, another two Guardian figures dated to the 15th Century, from the Fuller Memorial Collection, Seattle Art Museum, illustrated by H. Munsterberg, Chinese Buddhist Bronzes, New York 1988, pl.s 93 and 94.
A number of elaborately cast gilt-bronzes from this period detailed with ornate floral platform stands similar to the present lot are known such as the stands accompanying two gilt-bronze figures of Sakyamuni. The first is in the British Museum Collection, included in the exhibition, Buddhism: Art and Faith, London, 1985, and illustrated in the Catalogue as the frontispiece, and no. 305; and the other is illustrated by D. Weldon, 'The Perfect Image: The Speelman Collection of Yongle and Xuande Buddhist Icons', Arts of Asia, vol. 26, 1996, p. 66, no. 2. As with the present floral platform, these rectangular plinths are all cast with characteristic upturned corners.
It is evident that the present figure did not strictly follow the Tibetan Buddhist canon. In addition, the stylistic origin of this highly unusual image may be related to Shuilu, 'Water Path', paintings that were placed on temple walls for specific Buddhist Shuilu rituals. These rituals were popular during the Yuan period, and were prayers offered to the deities of the Shuilu, the sea denoting the mortal life of reincarnations where Nirvana is the farther shore. Compare a painting of Trailokyavijaya, Jiangsanshi Mingwang, from the Shuilu-miao of the Baoning Si, Shanxi province, illustrated by W. Watson, Arts of China 1900-1620, Yale University, 2000, p. 171, no. 257. This painting is dated to the mid-15th century, and shares many similarities with the present sculpture, particularly in the tablet held in one of the six hands, billowing scarves, arms and legs entwined by serpents and interpretation of the flowing skirt. A line drawing of this image is reproduced in Zhongguo Fojiao Tuxian Jieshuo, 1993, p. 123 (see fig. 4). In the instance of the present gilt-bronze, the complexity of the casting is astonishing in its exquisite quality and attention to fine details; its imposing size and vitality required craftsmanship with both imagination and mathematical genius. The present sculpture is undoubtedly one of the most important existing examples of esoteric Buddhist gilt-bronzes of the early Ming period.