This exceptional gilt-bronze figure of Vairocana illustrates the five Tathagatas in his highly ornate cylindrical crown. This seems to be a unique iconographic feature found amongst the small group of comparable elite bronzes cast under the patronage of the rulers of the Liao dynasty (907-1125). This known group of bronzes all demonstrate a comparable style: the figure itself is dignified and serene, the gilding is fine, and they wear lavish adornments and drapery. The style derives from late Tang dynasty (618-907) iconography. The known group shares a specific type of lotus base that can be divided into two different shapes. One cast with an integral lotus base supported by cabriole legs and the other with the lotus pericarp directly placed on a low drum-shaped base, like the current one.
The inside of this bronze Vairocana’s base is incised with an inscription mentioning that the bronze was registered at a local government office. It is known from research that bronze as a material was rare and costly in these days. Therefore, bronze objects were exclusive and had to be registered before being brought on the market. Perhaps its importance and particularly heavy weight required this official government approval.
Most of the known bronze examples represent bodhisattvas and only but a few would depict a Buddha form. Most of the latter kind represent Buddha Amitabha. Only one other Vairocana example, though it was described as a bodhisattva, seems to be known and was published by A & J Speelman Ltd., International Asian Art Fair [catalogue], New York, 1998, p. 76. In 2006, that bronze was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of New York (accession number 2006.284) who identified it correctly as Vairocana, based on the specific hand gesture. This esoteric ‘mudra of knowledge’ (janamudra) or ‘diamond fist’ (vajramudra) symbolises the combination of opposites, male and female, yin and yang, as well as wisdom and compassion. However, that bronze figure does not bear the five Tathagatas in his crown like the current example.
Vairocana is the Primordial Buddha from whom all things emanate. He heads the group of five Tathagatas or cosmic Buddhas, each representing a different mood, colour and direction. The teachings of the transcendent Buddhas were relatively popular in China from the Tang up to the Liao period based on various stone and clay examples that have come down to us.
This small group of luxurious commissions for Liao Buddhist shrines can be dated to the eleventh century, based on a group of over life-size clay figures in the Lower Huayan Temple, Datong, Shanxi Province, dated to 1038 AD. The temple was then located in the western capital of the Liao kingdom. Angela Falco Howard (et al.) published a picture of the shrine in her magnum opus Chinese Sculpture, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2006, p. 375, figure 4.18. Bodhisattvas of this shrine share the same proportions, ornaments, clothes and high crowns along with several of their gilt-bronze counterparts, including the current one. Other gilt-bronze Liao examples in public institutions are cited in the catalogue note of Lot 396, Christie’s, New York, 19 March 2008. However none of these cited comparable gilt-bronze Buddhist figures match the quality, rarity and iconographic complexity of this superbly cast sacred image.