At first glance, this magnificent gilt-bronze figure may seem to depict the historical Buddha Shakyamuni. However, the right hand turned towards the observer in the gesture of granting wish or varadamudra identifies this figure as the transcendent Buddha Ratnasambhava, the "jewel-born". Ratnasambhava is a ubiquitously represented tathagata associated with the South. Ratnasambhava is the father of the Jewel family of Vajrayana Buddhist deities, associated with the element of earth, and the enlightened activity of equanimity. He is often pictured with the other four tathagata buddhas—Akshobya of the East, Amitabha of the West, Amoghasiddhi of the North, and Vairochana of the Central direction. These primordial buddhas all bear an appearance like that of the historical Buddha Shakyamuni, unadorned, in the garb of an ordained monk.
Himalayan Art Resources, item no. 24530.
A Tibetan-style Nepalese figure of Buddha Ratnasambhava by Michael Henss
According to stylistic criteria, Buddha figures are often not easy to classify chronologically. The formal characteristics of "classical" Shakyamuni sculptures, such as the current work, change only slightly over long periods of time, especially since the ateliers of Nepalese artists often adhere to ancient traditions. Often, the design of the lotus base (if intact) gives precise or additional clues to dating. For the current lot, physiognomic details, the style of the folds in the robes, and the appearance of a baseplate mounted on a throne base and cast together with the figure, make an origin in the later seventeenth or earlier eighteenth century probable.
In addition to the iconographic and stylistic features, some technical peculiarities also deserve attention. The statue was probably cast in one piece, i.e. together with the head, which in larger sculptures is usually made separately in the hollow casting process (cire perdue technique) and only later, covered by the final gilding, connected to the body. This could only be determined by a technical examination (radiography, tomography). The lotus pedestal, no longer intact, was probably made of wood or clay, in the latter case in firm connection with a temple altar, the probably original context of this statue. The narrow baseplate was attached to the former lotus throne as still clearly visible with eight bolt-holes. A similar pedestal technique is also known from other Buddha figures of a larger format from the seventeenth or eighteenth century, which are also stylistically comparable.
After the sculpture was separated from its original base, it was sealed again at a later time with a copper baseplate and filled with various consecrated materials, per tradition. This practice, which is common for Buddhist statues and brings spiritual and religious merit, may have taken place on the occasion of a new consecration if the figure was damaged or dislocated. Also per tradition, the baseplate of the final consecration should not be opened for profane or even scientific reasons. As such, a special radiographic or tomographic analysis can be helpful to identify the casting technique and the consecration materials within. However, the relatively large size of the object may present challenges for such investigations.
The considerable weight (approximately 25 kg) indicates a rather thick-walled casting, a characteristic feature of other heavy statues from the seventeenth or eighteenth century. On the back side, the figure has two small areas of damage, probably original casting flaws: at the base of the throne, and a few small missing parts, indicating a solid filling of the base.
According to the characteristic tradition of Nepalese artists, this Buddha was fire-gilt. Fire-gilding has been a historically predominant technique in Nepal, and introduced to Tibet at a very early period. To do this, gold powder was mixed with mercury to form a paste, which was then burned into the metal surface under the influence of heat. To save costs, the reverse of the statue was not gilded, as it was visible only for worship from the front. Only there the copper-rich brown-red alloy (approximately 85-95% copper content) becomes visible, while in Tibet and China, completely gilded sculptures mostly consist of brass alloys with a reduced ~80% copper content).