A Masterpiece Of Chinese Buddhist Sculpture
Presented in the guise of a monk, this magnificent sculpture, which dates to the Northern Qi period (AD 550–577), represents a Buddha as indicated by the robes, ushnisha, benevolent countenance, distended earlobes, and webbed fingers. The ushnisha, or cranial protuberance atop the head, symbolizes the expanded wisdom that the Buddha gained at his enlightenment, and it serves as the Buddha’s diagnostic iconographic feature as only Buddhas possess an ushnisha. The gilded surfaces not only make the sculpture appropriate for representing a deity but symbolize the light that, according to the sacred texts, or sutras, radiates from his body.
“Buddha” means “the Enlightened One;” he is an individual who has attained enlightenment and has entered into nirvana. In this sculpture, the Buddha is standing and holds his right hand in the abhaya mudra, a preaching gesture in which the hand is raised, palm outward, in the attitude of ‘do not fear’. (A ritual hand gesture, a mudra symbolizes a particular action, power, or attitude of a deity.) He holds his left hand in the varada mudra, or gift-giving gesture, in which the hand is lowered, palm outward. This combination of mudras— often shortened to read abhaya-vara mudra—indicates that the Buddha is preaching. Many different Buddhas hold their hands in the abhaya-vara mudra; even so, a Buddha with hands so positioned, the fingers elegantly arrayed and pointing straight up and straight down but without fingertips and thumb touching to form a circle, is typically identified as the Historical Buddha Shakyamuni (traditionally, 563 BC – 483 BC), suggesting that this image likely represents Shakyamuni.
As described in the sutras, the Buddha wears three distinct robes, though not all are visible in every sculpture or painted image; in this sculpture, the outer robe fully cloaks the figure, for example, with the result that the other robes are mostly concealed. Known in Sanskrit as the kasaya or ticivara, the Buddha’s three robes comprise the sanghati, uttarasanga, and the antaravasaka. Not tailored, each robe is a long, rectangular piece of cloth that is wrapped around or draped over the body in a prescribed fashion. Sometimes likened to a dhoti or sarong, the antaravasaka is an inner robe that covers the lower portion of the body; wrapped around the waist, it typically hangs from to the ankles, covering the hips and legs. Also an inner robe, the uttarasanga covers the left shoulder and crosses the chest diagonally but leaves the right shoulder and right arm bare; it covers the antaravasaka, except for its lowermost edge, and is itself covered by the sanghati, which is the outer robe that usually is the most visible and distinctive of the three robes. Additionally, there might be a kushalaka, a cloth or cord worn around the waist to hold the antaravasaka and uttarasanga in place; more rarely, those inner garments may be secured in place by a samakaksika, or buckled belt.
In this sculpture, the antaravasaka, the dhoti-like garment, is visible only at the Buddha’s ankles, where it projects below the edge of the outer robe. Completely covered by the outer robe, the uttarasanga also is not visible in this sculpture. Most prominent of all, the sanghati, or outer robe, which has been embellished with applied gold, covers both shoulders and the chest and then flows gracefully over the entire body, terminating just above the ankles in a wide, U-shaped configuration. The outer edges of the sanghati loop over the arms and descend along the sculpture’s sides, suggesting a cape. Lacking a kushalaka, or cincture around the waist, the drapery flows smoothly and elegantly over the body, clinging tightly enough to reveal the body’s presence and to suggest its form, from the broad shoulders and narrow waist to the swelling hips and columnar legs, but not so tightly as to reveal its anatomical structure in detail.
This sculpture originally would have stood on a carved lotus base of which only the “seedpod” at the bottom of this sculpture remains today; with flat top and slightly concave sides, the generally triangular seedpod would have been set within the central cavity of a circular lotus base on top of a square plinth, anchoring the sculpture in an upright position.1 Rising from its lotus base, this majestic, gilt stone sculpture originally stood on an altar; it might have appeared alone but it more likely was part of a group of figures.
Hierarchically scaled and symmetrically arranged, such a group would have included the the Buddha at the center flanked on either side by a bodhisattva, perhaps with a monk or disciple tucked between the Buddha and each bodhisattva, and perhaps with a guardian figure at each outer edge of the assemblage. A Sui-dynasty (AD 581–618) bronze altarpiece in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (22.407)2 suggests the context in which this sculpture originally appeared, as does the late seventh or early eighth-century, gilt bronze Maitreya altar group in the collection of the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco (B60 B8+).
If presented as the central deity in a grouping, Shakyamuni likely would have been accompanied by Bodhisattva Manjushri, the bodhisattva of transcendent wisdom, and Samantabhadra, the bodhisattva of Buddhist practice and meditation, thus forming a Shakyamuni Triad. (Meaning “enlightened being”, bodhisattvas are benevolent beings who have attained enlightenment but who have selflessly postponed entry into nirvana in order to assist other sentient beings in gaining enlightenment and thus release from the samsara cycle of birth and rebirth.) Alternatively, as he is regarded as the Buddha of the Future and thus the successor to Shakyamuni, the Bodhisattva Maitreya might have accompanied Shakyamuni in place of Samantabhadra or Manjushri. If disciples appeared in the grouping, they likely would have been the youthful Ananda and the elderly Mahakasyapa, Shakyamuni’s favorites.
That its back is flat and, though finished, not fully modeled indicates that this sculpture stood before a mandorla, which likely was painted on the wall behind the sculpture, the aureole suggesting light radiating from the Buddha’s body and thus signaling his divine status. (Symbolizing divinity, a halo is a circle, or disc, of light that appears behind a deity’s head; a mandorla is a full-body halo.)
In excellent condition and amazingly complete—retaining its original head, arms, body, legs, feet, and lotus-seedpod base—this sculpture dates to the Northern Qi period (AD 550–577). The sculpture’s majestic, columnar stature is entirely in keeping with its Northern Qi date, as are the large hands, the simple, clinging robe, and the treatment of the rounded chest, which lacks both a division of the pectorals and a distinction between chest abdomen. (The disproportionately large hands likely served to emphasize the mudra and associated symbolism of teaching.) The unembellished cylindrical neck, which is typical of Northern Qi sculptures, stands in contrast to the fleshy necks with three strongly articulated folds that would appear during the Sui dynasty (AD 518–618) and then would become characteristic in sculptures from the Tang dynasty (AD 618–907). The rectangular face with relatively small eyes set in shallow sockets, the large domical ushnisha, and the depiction of the top of the head with shaven pate rather than with wavy locks or small snail-shell curls of hair also are all standard features of Buddhist sculptures from the Northern Qi period. In addition, the elongated ears with distended but flat, unmodulated, unpierced lobes are characteristic of the Northern Qi style. Moreover, the placement of the arms close to the body, with a lack of open space between arms and torso, is a standard feature of Northern Qi sculptures, the interest in such piercing of the stone occurring in the Sui and flourishing in the Tang.
Although modest drapery folds, whether incised or carved in shallow relief, enliven the robes of most Northern Qi stone sculptures of the Buddha,4 a few such sculptures—particularly ones excavated at the site of the Longxingsi Temple at Qingzhou, Shandong province—lack such folds, the robes clinging tightly to the figure’s body and flowing gracefully from shoulders to ankles, unimpeded by incised or carved folds.5 In the treatment of its drapery, the present sculpture shows a remarkable kinship to those from Qingzhou. As amply demonstrated by the Qingzhou sculptures, however, such sculptures originally were fully painted or gilded—as in the case of the present sculpture—so the stone surfaces in fact were embellished, even if not with incising or carving.
Published in London already in 1978,6 this sculpture had been in the West at least twenty years before the discovery and excavation of the Qingzhou sculptures in 1996-97. Close as it is in appearance to those sculptures, this impressive sculpture is not from that location, though the similarity in style suggests that it might well have been produced in the same general area as the Qingzhou sculptures, perhaps at another site in Shandong province or a little farther to the west, in Hebei province. Even so, subtle features differentiate the present sculpture from those recovered at Qingzhou. The present sculpture has a shaven pate, for example, whereas most Qingzhou images of the Buddha have small snail-shell curls of hair; in addition, this Buddha’s face is rectangular, but those of the Qingzhou sculptures are slightly rounded (even if not as round and fleshy as those of Tang sculptures). The hands of the Qingzhou Buddhas generally are in proper scale to the bodies, rather than disproportionately large, and the fingers are more delicately arrayed, occasionally with fingers slightly flexed. Nonetheless, the remarkable similarity in style and general appearance establishes this sculpture’s Northern Qi date, demonstrates that one variant style lacked incised or carved drapery folds, and documents that some rare stone sculptures were embellished with applied gold.
This majestic image represents a Buddha in the act of preaching, likely the Historical Buddha Shakyamuni. Simply yet brilliantly composed, this exquisite sculpture focuses attention on the Buddha’s face, with its serene countenance and compassionate expression, and on his hands, with their preaching mudras. In perfect harmony, the elegant style and clear statement of purpose—the preaching of wisdom and compassion—combine to make this a great masterwork of Chinese Buddhist sculpture.
Robert D. Mowry
Alan J. Dworsky Curator of Chinese Art Emeritus,
Harvard Art Museums, and
Senior Consultant, Christie’s