The Claude de Marteau Collection, Part II / STATUETTE D'AKSHOBHYAVAJRA GUHYASAMAJA EN ALLIAGE DE CUIVRE DORÉ TIBET CENTRAL, XVE SIÈCLE
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A GILT COPPER ALLOY FIGURE OF AKSHOBHYAVAJRA GUHYASAMAJA
CENTRAL TIBET, 15TH CENTURY
藏中 十五世紀 銅鎏金密集不動金剛像
With Claude de Marteau, Brussels, by 1970s
"The anuttara yoga tantras are
The highest teachings given by the Buddha.
From amongst these the most profound is
That of glorious Guhyasamaja, the king of all tantras.
Understanding the sublime path of Guhyasamaja
Bestows fearless, confident understanding
Of all the teachings of the Buddha."
- Je Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), Founder of the Gelug School of Tibetan Buddhism
Representing the crown of the de Marteau Collection, this large, complex sculpture depicts Akshobhyavajra Guhyasamaja, a subject central to Tibetan Buddhism's promise of a swift and complete enlightenment. Two sublime beings—male and female—merge into one another in an ecstatic sexual embrace symbolizing the transcendent state of Buddhahood that one achieves through the completion of tantric instruction. Measuring 51.5 cm tall, this gilded bronze is among the grandest sculptural commissions of Guhyasamaja—or any composite yab yum ('mother-father') deity—from Tibet ever to appear on the market. Representing a subject deeply connected with the religious instruction of Tibet's most famous historic person, Je Tsongkhapa (1357-1419; fig. 1), this sculpture is also produced in a style synonymous with the Tibetan Renaissance he inspired.
The 'Ganden Renaissance,' which bore this sculptural tour de force, has been described as a 'quantum explosion' of spiritual attainment, philosophical and literary accomplishment, and artistic creativity.1 The post-enlightenment mission of the founder of the Gelug order, Tsongkhapa, to renew and reinvigorate Tibetan Buddhism galvanized an astonishing surge in religious and artistic activity in the 15th century. Support came through cooperation and competition among the various schools of Tibetan Buddhism as well as through patronage from Tibetan kings and Chinese emperors alike. Many of Central Tibet's most important monasteries (fig. 2) were founded during this period, with innovative feats of Buddhist painting and sculpture installed within them, such as Ganden (1410), the Gyantse Pelchor Chode (1418; fig. 3), Ngor (1429), and Tashi Lhunpo (1447). Far from limited to Central Tibet, the Ganden Renaissance extended much further into East and West Tibet. The assembling of artists from all over the Himalayas to create evermore magnificent commissions resulted in the successful integration of important influences from neighboring artistic traditions, and Tibetan art reaching its full maturity.2
Thanks to the rich information provided by a stylistically related masterpiece previously sold by Bonhams (fig. 4a; Bonhams, New York, 19 March 2018, lot 3033), this impressive Guhyasamaja can be confidently dated and attributed to 15th-century Central Tibet. The other gilt bronze, dubbed the 'Jamchen Avalokiteshvara' after the monastery it was created for, depicts the supreme, cosmic form of Boddhisatva Avalokiteshvara (Avalokiteshvara Sahasrabhuja Ekadasamukha), and features an inscription recording the master artist, royal patrons, monastery, and the overseeing Sakya hierarch involved in its production. By triangulating their biographies and historical records about Jamchen monastery, Watt was able to pinpoint the sculpture's creation in the Shigatse region of Central Tibet, c. 1425-30.3
Watt's reading of the inscription constituted a significant discovery for Tibetan art history; the sculpture revealed the name of a 'Tibetan Michelangelo', called Sonam Gyaltsen, whose superlative work could now be recognized among sculptures held in private and museum collections long-lauded as embodying the height of Tibetan sculptural achievement. However, in the wake of this recent discovery, little else is known about Sonam Gyaltsen and his atelier other than he was patronized, c.1425-30, by the Sakya order and members of Rinpungpa dynasty (1435-1565) ruling over the Shigatse region. For example, it is unknown whether his was the only atelier working in this stylistic tradition, which we presume lasted until the 16th century. Further research might determine whether he is the same 'Sonam Gyaltsen' recorded to have contributed to the contemporaneous artistic program of the Sakya Gyantse Kumbum, completed in 1427.4 Nevertheless, the discovery of Sonam Gyaltsen and the Jamchen Avalokiteshvara provides a suitable placeholder for allowing us to locate several sculptures (such as the present Guhysamaja) sharing distinctive stylistic elements within the riverine commissions of the Ganden Renaissance.
As Watt notes:
"It is therefore reasonable that the now clearly recognizable style can be named, until more historical data is acquired, as the Sonam Gyaltsen sculpture atelier. From the standpoint of historical research that is the first important point. The second important point is the acknowledgement of the atelier as producing some of the finest Tibetan sculpture created during a golden age of both art and Tibetan literary output. The style represents a true synthesis of the best characteristics of sculpture styles from the surrounding regions of the Himalayas, India, Kashmir, Nepal and China, reshaped into a truly unique Tibetan aesthetic flourishing in the 15th century."5
A close reading of stylistic details shared by Sonam Gyaltsen's Avalokiteshvara and the present Guhyasamaja strongly suggests that they belong to the same artistic tradition. The deities have a similar facial type, and exhibit lithe and nimble physiques, which notably depart from the general emphasis on figural monumentality in Tibetan art created before the 15th century. Their crowns rest above an idiomatic fringe of rounded curls. Their jewelry draws immediate comparison: the design of most articles shares the common denominators of either three lotus petals bearing a small turquoise setting framed by a pointed five-lobed leaf, or a turquoise setting flowering from a lotus-bud pendant (fig. 4b). Even more particular are the miniature chased lines enlivening this floral imagery. Further patterns of engraving can be seen in the floral motifs on each deities' lower garments which often appear in Tibetan sculpture. However, the additional patterning along the bottom edge of either sculpture's base conspicuously decorates a surface less commonly embellished. Lastly, the style of lotus petals, with symmetrically curling plump inner corolla on top of swelled outer petals with pointed tips, is a clear indicator of the two sculptures' stylistic congruency.
The most comprehensive list of sculptures thus far attributed to the Sonam Gyaltsen atelier is published on Himalayan Art Resources (set no. 5175). They include sculptures of the highest quality, such as gilt bronze yab yum figures of Vajrabhairava and Manjuvajra Guhyasamaja in the Rietberg Museum, Zurich (figs. 5 & 6) and a Guhyasamaja in the Capital Museum, Beijing (HAR 59837). However, no seated image thus far known in this tradition comes close to matching the impressive scale of the present Guhyasamaja (fig. 7), with the exception perhaps of a fragmented Guhyasamaja (?) photographed within a heap of damaged sculptures in the Johkang, Lhasa.6 In fact, the present bronze's extraordinary size likely makes it the largest cast yab yum sculpture from Tibet ever to appear in the market. While some at this scale are known to originate from China (also in the 15th century),7 few, if any, Tibetan seated yab yum figures above 40 cm are known outside of Tibet.8 Moreover, few cast seated figures above 40 cm of any subject have ever been offered in the art market.9
Yab yum images symbolizing the enlightened integration of wisdom and compassion through the metaphor of 'mother-father' deities in sexual congress are arguably the most enthralling subject in Tibetan Buddhist art, emblematic of the religion's distinctive character and material culture. Yab yum iconography is frequently deployed to depict yidams, like Guhyasamaja, which are an important class of "meditational deities" in Tantric Buddhism. Other popular yidams include Chakrasamvara, Vajrabhairava, Hevajra, and Kalachakra. These yidams and their retinue within a surrounding mandala are the topic of a class of tantric teachings called the "Unsurpassed Yoga Tantras" (Anuttarayoga Tantra). According to Tibetan exegetes, the practice of Anuttarayoga Tantra is the only means through which the practitioner's ultimate goal of Buddhahood can be achieved; it cannot be achieved through mastering other 'lower tantras' or by the Mahayanist practice of the Bodhisattva Path.10
"Practitioners of Guhyasamaja Tantra ... actively transform negative states, such as desire and anger, into an experience of enlightenment.... The deity Guhyasamaja is therefore a semi-wrathful and semi-peaceful deity, indicating both the negative passions and their subsequent purification."
- Cathleen A. Cummings, "Guhyasamaja Tantra"11
Hailed the 'king of tantras' (rgyud kyi rgyal po) in Tibet, the Guhyasamaja Tantra, which this sculpture gives form to, was composed in India likely between 750 and 850 CE and translated into Chinese and Tibetan in the 11th century. It is considered the first tantra to be revealed from a divine source, as well as a fundamental text of Anuttarayoga Tantra. The Sanskrit "Guhyasamaja" translates to "Secret Assembly", which is understood to mean "an assembly of hidden factors that bring us to enlightenment".12 This assembly refers to the central yidam and its surrounding mandala of retinue deities.13 In the form of Akshobhyavajra and Sparshavajra combined, the yidam Guhyasamaja represents the hidden essence of Akshobhya Buddha, the central Presiding Buddha of the Five Directions oriented within the mandala's inner sanctum (fig. 8). The other Presiding Buddhas are also represented by signature implements within the present sculpture's radiating hands, namely Vairocana's wheel, Amitabha's lotus, Ratnasambhava's gem, and Amoghasiddhi's sword. Thus, while it is quite likely that this large representation of Guhyasamaja sat at the center of an entourage of smaller cast retinue figures, of which several from the 15th century are known (e.g., fig. 9),14 the sculpture's symbolism of the Five Presiding Buddhas makes an abbreviated reference to the surrounding mandala contained within its own iconography.
Contributing to its high regard, a number of legendary Indian and Tibetan exponents are credited with the Guhyasamaja Tantra's transmission, including Nagarjuna, Aryadeva, Naropa, Marpa, and Go Lotsawa. However, none are more acclaimed in Tibet than Tsongkhapa, who is known simply as Je Rinpoche ("Precious Leader"). The centrifugal force behind the Ganden Renaissance, Tsongkhapa distinguished himself as a brilliant scholar and exegete of both sutra and tantra. We owe the completeness of the Guhyasamaja Tantra as we have it today largely due to Tsongkhapa's efforts. He collected and united various lines of transmission, wrote numerous treatises explaining some of its most difficult aspects, and settled some ambiguous and long-unresolved issues.15 So impressive were his qualities that great sages from all traditions were willing to transmit entire lineages of teachings and meditation practices to him.16 Some even subsequently became his pupils: most notably the great Sakya scholar Gyaltsap Darma Rinchen (1364-1432) who succeeded Tsongkhapa as the second abbot of Ganden monastery, the Gelug order's initial monastic seat of power. Not only did the Gelug order rise organically from Tsongkhapa's amassed following, but his staggering output also energized and at times directly sponsored tremendous creativity among the Sakya, Kagyu, and Nyingma orders as well, culminating in the special atmosphere of the Ganden Renaissance.
Tsongkhapa regarded the Guhyasamaja Tantra with special importance, promoting its wisdom through literary and artistic projects. Commentaries on the Tantra feature prominently in his collected works, making up the majority of Tsongkhapa's 18 volumes of writings.17 He is also known to have commissioned the installation of a three-dimensional architectural Guhyasamaja mandala within the heart of Ganden monastery's principal sanctuary in 1417, described as "being made of precious stones" and the main images of silver.18 There can be little doubt, therefore, that the Guhyasamaja Tantra owes its ascendency as a teaching and its proliferation in art of the 15th century to Tsongkhapa and his disciples.19 After his death in 1419, the cultural renaissance he set in motion continued with 'exponential increase in quantity and quality' through the creative patronage of Khedrub Rinpoche (1385-1438), the third abbot of Ganden monastery, who was deeply involved in the creation of the Gyantse Kumbum stupa located in the Sakya Pelchor Chode enclave.20 Guhyasamaja murals are painted within the stupa's two most sacred sections, the harmika (fig. 10), and the spire's central wooden axis pillar.21 Some of the best-known early Gelug thangkas depict Akshobhyavajra Guhyasamaja, such as those within a Private Collection (fig. 11) and formerly within the Richard and Magdalena Ernst Collection.22
Therefore, this imposing sculpture likely served as the central deity of its own glorious Guhyasamaja mandala set. Larger than any Tibetan Guhyasamaja or yab yum sculpture known outside Tibet, it would have been created for one of the burgeoning monastic institutions in Central Tibet during the 15th century. Whether commissioned by the Sakya known to have patronized Sonam Gyaltsen, or the Gelug known to have championed Akshobhyavajra Guhyasamaja, this consequential work undoubtedly arose from the golden age of Tibetan Buddhist religious and cultural effervescence. Ultimately, its existence is testament to the multifaceted legacy of Je Tsongkhapa, and to an unparalleled artistic peak in Tibetan history.
For the figures listed in this essay, please refer to our printed or digital limited edition catalogue.
1 Referring to a period in Tibetan history between the start of Tsongkhapa's post-enlightenment and the Fifth Dalai Lama's unification of Tibet (1398-1642), the term 'Ganden Renaissance' was coined by Robert Thurman in 1999 (Thurman & Rhie, Worlds of Transformation, 1999, pp. 31-7 & 495).
2 Ibid., p. 32.
3 Watt, in Bonhams, New York, 19 March 2018, lot 3033.
4 Lo Bue, "The Sacred Enclave of Gyantse", in On the Path to the Void, Marg, 1996, p. 135. A point also iterated by Weinstein, Deities Unveiled, 2021, p. 104.
5 Watt, in Bonhams, Hong Kong, 26 November 2019, lot 30.
6 Henss, The Cultural Monuments of Tibet, 2014, vol. 1, p. 81, fig.106. Additionally, while the Jamchen Avalokiteshvara and one other standing bodhisattva sculpture (HAR 61322) are cast to the same approximate height, the present sculpture is unmatched in scale by any other standing or seated yab yum deity known in this style.
7 Such Ming examples include a gilt bronze Guhyasamaja, measuring 66 cm high, in the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco (B64B23), and a Xuande-period (1425-35) Jinasagara Avalokiteshvara, measuring 60 cm high in wood, sold at Bonhams, Hong Kong, 2 December 2021, lot 1020.
8 A standing Chakrasamvara from 14th-century Nepal in the collection of Michael Henss, Zurich, measures 41 cm (Pal, Himalayas: An Aesthetic Adventure, 2003, p. 58, no. 31). Several large gilded seated figures are photographed within the holdings of Shalu monastery (Henss, vol. 2, pp. 585 & 623, figs. 830 & 902).
9 Examples include an Amitayus attributed to Sonam Gyaltsen (41 cm) published in von Schroeder, Indo-Tibetan Bronzes, 1981, p. 446, no. 121A; a seated Maitreya (65 cm; ibid., p. 429, no. 112F); a 15th-century figure of Syamatara (48 cm) sold at Bonhams, New York, 19 March 2012, lot 1097; a Vajrasattva (59 cm) offered by Sotheby's, New York, 3 September 2013, lot 1; and a Vajradhara (48 cm) in the Newark Museum of Art (Reynolds, From the Sacred Realm, 1999, pp. 242-3, pl. 140). Interestingly all these larger Tibetan sculptures were created with their adjoined figures and bases cast separately, as is the case with the present sculpture.
10 Buswell Jr. & Lopez, "anuttarayogatantra", in The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, 2013.
11 Cummings, "Guhyasamaja Tantra", in Huntington & Bangel, Circle of Bliss, 2003, p. 432.
12 According to the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso. After Cummings, (ibid. pp. 432-5).
13 There are two types of Guhyasamaja mandala, resulting from distinct sub-traditions, one that positions Manjuvajra Guhyasamaja at the center of a 19-deity mandala, the other that positions Akshobhyavajra Guhyasamaja at the center of a 32-deity mandala, to which the present sculpture refers.
14 These include three closely related mandala retinue figures in the style associated with Densatil monastery in Central Tibet in the 15th century (Sotheby's, New York, 18 December 1981, lot 263; Seeks Auction, Beijing, 7 June 2017, lot 307; and Bonhams, Hong Kong, 7 October 2019, lot 933). Others in differing styles are included within this sale (lot 21) and were sold at Bonhams, Hong Kong, 2 October 2018, lot 182.
15 Cummings, in Huntington & Bangdel 2003, p. 435.
16 Dechen Rochard, "The Kadam and Gelug Schools", in Dinwiddie (ed.), Portraits of the Masters, 2003, p. 289.
17 Repo, "Tsongkhapa Lobzang Drakpa", treasuryoflives.org biography no. 8986.
18 After Henss, 2014, vol. 1, p. 217.
19 The deity's popularity during the 15th century in the wake of Tsongkhapa's leadership is further attested by major bronze sculptures of Guhyasamaja produced in the early Ming dynasty (see note 7) as well as the existence of numerous gilt bronze Guhyasamaja mandala retinue figures in disparate 15th/16th century styles (see note 13).
20 Thurman, 1999, p. 31.
21 Henss, 2014, vol. 2, pp. 535 & 545, figs. 767 & 785; both depictions relate to the Manjuvajra Guhyasamaja sub-tradition which the Sakya may have promoted in a form of competitive differentiation with the Gelug.
22 Huntington and Bangdel, 2003, p. 439, no. 135.