HK$35,000,000 - HK$55,000,000
Global Head, Himalayan & Southeast Asian Art
Head of Sale, NY & HK - Indian, Himalayan & Southeast Asian Art
藏中 丹薩替 十五世紀早期 銅鎏金西方廣目天王像
Amy Heller, Tibetan Art: Tracing the Development of Spiritual Ideals and Art in Tibet 600-2000 A.D., Jaca Book, 1999, no. 82.
Chino Roncoroni & Iwona Tenzing, The Great Heritage, Tenzing Asian Art LLC, 2020, no. 354.
Jean-Luc Estournel, "About the 18 Stupas and Other Treasures Once at the Densatil Monastery", in asianart.com, 2020, fig. 231.
Chino Roncoroni, before 1999
Christie's, New York, 23 March 1999, lot 109
A Distinguished Private European Collection
If you wish to bid on this lot, please refer to page 1 of the printed catalog for bidding information under 'Registration Important Notice'.
For the Mandarin translation of this entry, and the figures referenced, please refer to this lot's printed limited edition or digital catalog.
This magnificent figure of Virupaksha, the Buddhist Guardian of the West, would have stood before one of the eight tashi gomang stupas of Densatil monastery, one of the great artistic wonders of Tibet. Cast at twice the size of any free-standing subject on these glorious stupas, Virupaksha joined three other Heavenly Kings tasked with guarding the four cardinal directions. Only sixteen of these guardians survived intact after Densatil's destruction in the second half of the 20th century. Notably, only four, including this Virupaksha, were ever dispersed beyond Mainland China. The three others constitute highlights of world-renowned museum collections. The tallest documented Densatil divine king, this sculpture was made at the peak of the order's sculptural tradition, when the monastery was most prosperous and the noble clan officiating over it was at the height of its power, ruling Central Tibet in the wake of the Yuan dynasty. As the sole Heavenly King remaining in private hands, ranking among the largest gilt bronze Tibetan sculptures ever to be auctioned, this remarkable Virupaksha is the grandest freestanding Densatil sculpture available in the art market.
Represented as a formidable warrior who can rouse fear in his adversaries, the artist masterfully casts Virupaksha standing in a contrapposto stance, adding grace to his stout build. The positioning of the guardian's outstretched right arm, which would have supported a small stupa, showcases a skilled bunching of fabric around his bicep and a pleasing silhouette around his jeweled paunch. His head titled upward; the warlord surveys the horizon with immutable confidence. An effigy of Amitabha, the Buddha of the Western Pure Land, surmounts the leather helmet behind a resplendent Garuda crown. The guardian king dons highly ornamented armor, consisting of matching chainmail leg and armguards and an engraved lamellar coat reinforced with turquoise and lapis lazuli inset belts and breastplates. Beneath this flexible sheathing falls his luxurious cloak, patterned with cloud forms and a fringe of lotus-borne turquoise gems. Its thick fabric flails behind the guardian's legs, adding heft and volume to the commanding figure. Upswept crown ribbons, a fluttering sash either side of the hips, and knotted cloth around his elbows add movement and dynamic asymmetry to the overall sculptural composition. As noted by Heller, "These guardian deities represent the epitome of vitality and strength and are depicted in armor to emphasize their invincible nature. Their portraits in sculpture and paintings are some of the most remarkable creations of Tibetan art owing to the extreme ardor and energy they manifest to defend Tibetan religious traditions."1
Virupaksha and the Four Heavenly Kings
"We four divine kings cultivate the true dharma...and by means of this dharma we transform and bring the world to order. We cause all [gods and demigods] and all human kings to govern the world by means of this true dharma and to expel and keep evil in check...It is for this reason we divine kings are called "protectors of the world."
— The Golden Light Sutra, translated by Yijing in 665 CE.2
Virupaksha, the Guardian of the West, is one of Four Heavenly Kings converted by the Buddha and entrusted with protecting the inhabitants of this world. These guardians reside in the heavenly realm closest to the mortal plane, situated on the slopes of Mt Meru, the legendary axis of this world. Virupaksha's name in Chinese, 廣目天王 (Guǎngmù Tiānwáng), means 'Heavenly King Who Sees All' – a sentiment evoked by the present figure's searching gaze.
Collectively, the Four Heavenly Kings control the denizens of the spirit world for the benefit of humankind. Suggested by the long, winding snake in the sculpture's left hand, Virupaksha reigns over a class of demigods known as the Naga. Sanskrit for 'serpent' or 'dragon,' the Naga inhabit an underwater kingdom replete with magnificent palaces and possess an array of magical powers.3
A pair of fangs revealed at the corners of this Virupaksha's mouth allude to the general's command over a second, more gruesome, class of demigod called pishacas. An army of flesh-eating ogres and goblins is thus at his disposal to wreak havoc upon marauders threatening devout Buddhist kingdoms or unrighteous rulers failing to uphold the Dharma. The Four Heavenly Kings appear prominently in Buddhist sutras especially influential throughout East Asia concerning just rule and state protection. Effigies of the Four Heavenly Kings are placed in temples to protect the main deity, the sacred space, and ultimately the Buddhist faith. At Densatil, a set of Four Heavenly Kings stood before each of the eight monumental stupas, guarding its entirety. As a result, the Densatil guardians were cast taller than any single relief panel, approximately twice the size of any free-standing sculpture on Densatil's tashi gomang stupas.4
Densatil monastery was constructed around the hermitage and final resting place of a great religious leader called Phagmodrupa Dorje Gyalpo (1110-70), who was regarded by his followers as an incarnation of Shakyamuni Buddha. The Phagdru Kagyu, an eponymous sect that formed around him, became Tibet's preeminent order in the 14th and early 15th centuries, once led by a noble Tibetan clan, the Lang (rlangs). In 1354 Changchub Gyaltsen (1302-64) led the Lang clan to victory over the Mongol-backed Sakyas and established the Phagmodrupa dynasty as the new rulers of Tibet with a secular throne at Neudongtse (Tsetang) and a religious seat at Densatil. As Densatil's wealth and political power grew, deriving great benefit from this combined sacred and secular rule, the order constructed in its main hall eight incredible stupas, known as tashi gomang ("many doors of auspiciousness") upon which the reliquaries of certain abbots were placed. These multi-tiered structures were covered in Buddhist gilt bronze sculptures and relief panels of astonishing scale and quality. Their splendor was photographed and recounted firsthand on an expedition in 1948 conducted by the founder of Tibetan art history, Giuseppe Tucci:
"Those chortens [stupas]...were smothered with a wealth of carvings and reliefs that knew no limits. The whole Olympus of Mahayana seemed to have assembled on those monuments. As I cast the light of my torch on the chortens, the several figures sprang into life, glittering with gold, outlined and set off by darker hues and deep shadows...The hard, rugged images [of the Four Heavenly Kings], like mail-clad warriors, sharply contrasted with the buoyancy of some female images gamboling festoon-like around the upper part of some of the oldest chortens."5
Behind this Virupaksha stood the shimmering tiered structure of a Densatil tashi gomang stupa, approximately five meters (sixteen feet) tall. Each of the eight stupas depicted the realm of Chakrasamvara in gilt bronze, inspired by a vision of one of Phagmodrupa's leading disciples, Jigten Sumgon Rinchen Pel (1143-1217). Jigten Sumgon invited Newari artisans from Nepal, led by a master named Manibhadra, to his own Drigung monastery to realize the first of such complex tashi gomang stupa in c. 1208. The eight built at Densatil followed similar blueprints to each other and the Drigung prototype. The various hosts of core Vajrayana teachings were represented, such as the Chakrasamvara, Guhyasamaja, Hevajra, Vajradhatu, and Prajnaparamita mandalas, not to mention all manner of Buddhas and protector deities. An astonishing amount upwards of 2,000 deities were cast in robust freestanding sculpture and relief panels and affixed to each glorious stupa, forming a 'mandala of mandalas'.6
Densatil's Sculptural Tradition
"Being surrounded by statues which are beautiful in all ways
on all tiers of the sides filling all directions,
which are of sparkling luster of a clear brilliance,
these tashi wobar and tashi gomang are,
in their breath-taking sight, like Buddha Shakyamuni,
are, in their moving of big waves of blessing, like the ocean,
are, in their natural brilliance, like the lord of mountains Mount Meru,
as if the builders were piling up one beauty on another,
like stirring up the bees by a lotus grove and the hares by white light and
the mind by a beautiful appearance,
these grasp the sentient beings' hearts."
— Je Tsongkhapa (1357-1419)7
The Virupaksha's imposing presence, dynamic posture, and windswept sashes epitomize the expressive vitality for which tashi gomang Densatil sculptures are so highly regarded. The Densatil sculptural tradition is distinguished by the thickness and weight of each casting, the superb gilding, and the rich inclusions of semiprecious stones. The sheer density of materials used speaks to the tremendous wealth and resources at the command of the Phagdru Kagyu when each of the tashi gomang stupas was created.
The building of these lavish monuments, reported in a variety of historical sources,8 coincides with periods of great prosperity at Densatil. The first was erected in 1267 shortly after the Lang clan, (whose members would go on to found the Phagmodrupa dynasty) were elevated as one of thirteen myriarchies, headed by the Sakya, subdividing Tibet under Yuan hegemony. The rest, or all but the second tashi gomang stupa, were built after the Lang clan replaced the Sakyas as the hegemonic power in Tibet in 1354.9 The last tashi gomang stupa was built in 1434, bookended by factional infighting leading to open revolt and the Phagmodrupa succumbing to their former vassals, the Rinpungpa of Shigatse.
The style, scale, elaborate settings, and superior modeling of the present Virupaksha indicate its creation during the most prosperous period in Densatil's history: the late 14th and early 15th century. Within this span, the Phagmodrupa dynasty consolidated its power in the wake of the Yuan empire, during the reign of its fifth and most powerful "King of Tibet", Gongma Dragpa Gyaltsen (r. 1385-1432).10
The surviving sixteen Densatil Heavenly Kings form a critical sample for tracing stylistic variation within the Densatil sculptural tradition over the 167-year period of tashi gomang construction. Those guardians that remained in Mainland China after the monastery's destruction in the late 1960s and 70s are now located in monastic repositories in Central Tibet, totaling seven, and the Capital Museum in Beijing, accounting for another five.11 Aside from the present sculpture, those dispersed beyond Mainland China are now in the collections of the Musée Guimet, Paris (fig. 1), the Museo d'Arte Orientale, Turin,12 and the National Palace Museum, Taipei (fig. 2). Following Estournel's comprehensive stylistic analysis, tracing most of the Densatil sculptures known today to their original tashi gomang stupas, the Densatil tradition can be broadly divided into an early and mature phase. The early phase is characterized by a reliance on the Newari aesthetic to create the first three stupas, while the mature phase embraces Central Asian and Chinese motifs while suggesting a more intentional Tibetan (or dynastic) aesthetic. Before a decline in quality shown by later examples,13 it is at the peak of this mature phase that the present Virupaksha, as well as the closely-related Guimet and Taipei guardians, are cast—when Densatil monastery is at the height of its political and abbatial power.
Estournel deduces that the Guimet and present Virupakshas stem from "twin stupas" made within a year of each other in 1407 and 1408, respectively.14 He also points to marked similarities between the Taipei Virudhaka and the present sculpture, most noticeably the distinctive rectangular lapis lazuli settings before each guardian's sternum, concluding that they are from the same 1408 set. Apparent even from a casual glance, these three guardians stand out from the rest. They are noticeably larger (both wider and about 5 cm taller than those other guardians that have published measurements, being around 66 cm).15 Their expressions are more ministerial, their proportions are more natural, and their stances are better balanced. In contrast to earlier examples, they represent a dramatic visual transformation of the subject.
An earlier set of Four Heavenly Kings photographed as part of the same stupa in 1948 convey the Phagdru Kagyu's initial reliance on the Newari aesthetic tradition from the Nepalese artisans they commissioned between 1267-c.1370.16 Estournel assigns the set to the third tashi gomang stupa built in 1370, which includes a figure of Virupaksha now in the Capital Museum, Beijing (fig. 3). Distinct from the present example, whose plump features are redolent of a stout Tang general, the relatively slim Capital Museum Virupaksha has a broad forehead and squarish jaw characteristic of Newari sculpture. With an oversized head bearing a rather generic grimace, its dwarfish proportions follow an Indo-Nepalese manner of depicting divine helpers.17 Its stiff, frontal stance gives occasion for the Newari bronze-caster to display his great skill, bedazzling the viewer with the symmetrical fanned pleats of Virupaksha's lower garment. But overall, this earlier guardian has a more abstract and ornamental sensibility than the naturalistically modelled, insurmountable warlord before us.
Within the next thirty-odd years, a period marked by the ascension of the Phagmodrupa dynasty in Tibet and the Ming dynasty in China, the Heavenly Kings at Densatil receive a complete makeover. Like a Ming scroll-painting of Virudhaka in the Cleveland Museum of Art (fig. 4), the present sculpture of Virupaksha exhibits superb chainmail and lamellar armor fastened by ruyi clasps at the shoulders and with thick fringes inset with semiprecious stones over the thighs and triceps. The tall makara shoulder guards worn by the previous Capital Museum guardian are replaced by leonine lappets, while the crown takes on a ruyi silhouette echoing those worn by the Ming-painted Virudhaka. The Newari 'rice grain' pattern decorating the belt of the Capital Museum Virupaksha is no longer deployed within the present divine king. Instead, the luxurious cloak worn underneath the latter's armor is chased with abundant upward-striving cloud patterns, following the Yuan penchant for the motif. The embrace of these and other Chinese elements led Béguin and Drilhon in 1984 to similarly conclude that the closely-related Guimet Virupaksha was produced in the late 14th or early 15th century.18
Another defining feature of this mature phase in the Densatil sculptural tradition is the enthusiastic inclusion of turquoise and lapis lazuli.19 In particular, the partially effaced medallion on the central strap across this Virupaksha's paunch, with the remains of a carefully carved Chinese dragon, betray a Tibetan affinity with the Yuan Mongols for carving in precious materials. An analogous Yuan carving of a dragon in amber is held in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (fig. 5). Representing the peak of this latter phase, the settings dispensed throughout this Virupaksha's armor are copious yet orderly and well-conceived, embellishing the splendid armor with a more coherent ornamentation than the Densatil guardians made before or after. The use of these stones is considered emblematic of the Densatil style, and an expression of the Phagmodrupa's dynastic identity.20
The Backdrop of a Tibetan Renaissance
This transition from a Newari to a more Sinicized aesthetic, expressed so clearly by the Densatil guardian kings, is in keeping with a greater arc of Tibetan art in the 14th and 15th centuries. This shift is seen elsewhere in Central Tibet, among the artistic projects of the Phagdru Kagyu's fierce rivals, the Sakya, whose strong political alliance with the Yuan dynasty catalyzed an influx of Chinese motifs and styles into Tibet. Several Sakya thangkas of Vaishravana, the most popular of the Four Heavenly Kings, draw immediate parallels with the present sculpture. For example, one produced at Shalu, the preeminent Sakya monastery in the 14th century, represents Vaishravana with a similar facial type and armor (fig. 6). Of special note are the guardian's leather boots with metal midsoles and toe caps in the form of scrolling foliage, the wide back brace tied with a silk sash around the waist, the freckled lion lappets, and the trefoil crown and leather cap behind.
Vaishravana functioned as Shalu's principal protector, and the thangka depicts the Guardian of the North within his celestial palace modelled after the monastery's main building complex, the Serkhang. Between 1306-20, the Serkhang underwent a major renovation supported by the Yuan emperor Chengzong (r. 1294-1307), which included Chinese roof architecture with pavilioned wings and glazed roof tiles. According to Tibetan literary sources, Kunzang Dragpa Gyaltsen, the lay ruler of Shalu at the time,21 summoned artists from Eastern Tibet and China to carry out the Serkhang's renovations, where Chinese dragons and clouds were painted on the walls, and jataka tales were visualized with scenes of daily life at the Yuan court.22 At the Serkhang itself, the quatrefoil cloud patterns surrounding a painted image of Vaishravana parallel those engraved on the present Virupaksha's exquisitely cast knee pads (fig. 7).23
Another Sakya thangka of Vaishravana from the early 15th century, more contemporaneous to the present sculpture, is held in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (fig. 8). It depicts Vaishravana with an arrangement of armored plates across his chest and shoulders identical to those that appear engraved throughout this Virupaksha's armored cloak. The intricate design represents lamellae in the form of stitched X-shaped plates overlapping square plates with a cruciform pattern. The Metropolitan Vaishravana also has lion lappets and a ruyi-crown like the present sculpture and the Ming Virudhaka in the Cleveland Museum of Art (fig. 4). Also, of striking resemblance are the quatrefoil breastplates worn over Vaishravana and Virupaksha's bellies, conceived with a central lotus roundel and cloud forms at the cardinal points.
The start of the 15th century saw a Tibetan cultural renaissance galvanized by the mission of the founder of the Gelug order, Je Tsongkhapa (c. 1357-1419), to renew and reinvigorate Tibetan Buddhism.24 Support for this astonishing surge in religious and artistic activity 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 were founded during this period, and 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. While there are records of direct exchanges between the Phagmodrupa and the Yuan and Ming rulers of China,25 it is more likely that the enhanced depiction of the Four Heavenly Kings at Densatil came by way of artist networks within Tibet also working for the Sakya and other orders. For instance, Estournel points to the lotus thrones of several sculptures photographed on the last tashi gomang stupa, built in 1434, that appear in the same style as the 'Jamchen Avalokiteshvara' created by Sonam Gyaltsen, who worked for the Rinpungpa nobility on a Sakya monastery in Shigatse within the same decade.26 An invaluable sketchbook of a Newari artist, Jivarama, working in Tibet, dated 1435, which is now in the Shri Suresh R. Neotia Collection, Kolkata, includes sketches of the Four Heavenly Kings in the Ming style and substantiates the portability of such designs and motifs.27 It so happens that Jivarama worked on Kagyu projects evinced by the extensive set of Kagyu lineage portraits also contained within the sketchbook. In her discussion of the present Virupaksha, Heller suggests that the vassal relationship of the Rinpungpa to the Phagmodrupa (until they supplanted the latter in 1435), may have contributed to the similarities between the Four Heavenly Kings at Densatil and Gyantse, another Sakya enclave commissioned by the Rinpungpa in the late 14th and 15th centuries.28
This grand sculpture of Virupaksha, the last surviving Densatil divine king in private hands, was created against a backdrop of flourishing spiritual attainment, philosophical and literary accomplishment, and artistic creativity in Tibet. As part of improvements made upon Densatil sculpture under the rule of the Phagmodrupa dynasty, it towers above any other free-standing sculpture from the monastery's extraordinary stupas. Part of one of the most ambitious projects in Tibetan art, this guardian, for its expressive quality, naturalism, and complexity, can be counted among the many great innovations undertaken by Tibetan monastic orders in this era.
1 Heller, "Armor and Weapons in the Iconography of Tibetan Buddhist Deities, in Warriors of the Himalayas, La Rocca, 2006, p. 35.
2 Translated by Daniel Stevenson, after Lopez Jr. (ed.), Buddhist Scriptures, 2004, p. 39.
3 Buswell Jr. & Lopez Jr., The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, 2014, pp.1874-5.
4 Most free-standing sculptures measure between 20-35 cm high. A handful of exceptions measure up to 41.5 cm together with their lotus pedestals, including some which are illustrated in Estournel, "About the 18 Stupas and Other Treasures Once at the Densatil Monastery", Asianart.com, 2020, figs. 62, 111, 260 & 311. A relief panel depicting Legden Mahakala now in the Pritzker Family Collection, Chicago, represents one of the tallest recorded Densatil panels at 61 cm (ibid., fig. 153).
5 Tucci, To Lhasa and Beyond, 1950, p. 128.
6 Luczanits, "Mandalas of Mandalas: The Iconography of a Stupa of Many Auspicious Doors for Phagmodrupa," in Tibetan Art and Architecture in Context: Tibetan Studies, PIATS 2006: Proceedings of the Eleventh Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, Königswinter 2006, pp. 281–310.
7 After Czaja & Proser, Golden Visions of Densatil, 2014, p. 55.
8 See Czaja's discussion of primary sources: Czaja, Medieval Rule in Tibet, 2013, pp. 383-7.
9 For differing opinions, see ibid. and Estournel, 2020.
10 Czaja & Proser, 2014, pp. 35 & 40. For a good summary of Densatil's ascendancy, see Henss, The Cultural Monuments of Tibet, Vol. I, 2014, p. 407.
11 Estournel, 2020, figs. 15, 95-8, 146, 197, 231-2, 252-3, 300-1, 340-2.
12 ibid., fig. 146.
13 ibid., fig. 253 is particularly illustrative.
14 ibid., figs. 197 & 231.
15 The exception being the Turin Virudhaka at 71.3 cm, described by Estournel as a transitional piece between the early and mature phases. There are also three half-size Heavenly Kings (approx. 32 cm high) published by von Schroeder, which Estournel suggests were made for a monument other than the eight tashi gomang stupas in Densatil's main hall (Estournel, 2010, figs. 340-2; von Schroeder, Buddhist Sculptures in Tibet, Vol. II, 2001, pp. 1076-7, nos. 278C-F).
16 The photograph is reproduced in Czaja & Proser, 2014, pp. 18-19.
17 Referring to the evolution of the gana yaksha model. See Linrothe, Ruthless Compassion, 1999, p. 12-4.
18 Béguin & Drilhon, "Virûpâksa, Le Gardien Au Regard Torve", in Arts Asiatiques, Vol. 39, 1984, pp. 78–86.
19 Also note the large rock crystal setting that remains in the proper left earring.
20 Estournel, 2020.
21 Kunzang Dragpa Gyaltsen was considered an incarnation of Vaishravana (Henss, 2014, p. 595, ff. 40).
22 HAR 5808 & 51511 and Henss, 2014, p. 605, fig. 869.
23 Other important Sakya Vaishravana thangkas showing the influx of Central Asian and Chinese imagery in relation to the Four Heavenly Kings in the 14th century include one in the Musée Guimet and an oversized presentation thangka photographed by Michael Henss at Jokhang monastery in Lhasa in 1984 (Kossak & Casey Singer, 1999, pp. 182-3, no. 52; and Henss, 2014, p. 84, fig. 114, respectively).
24 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).
25 For example, Densatil fell under the appanage of the Yuan prince Hulegu Khan (c. 1217-65) — the grandson of Genghis Khan, brother of Kubilai Khan, and founder of the Mongol Ilkhanid dynasty in the Middle East — who made several important offerings to the monastery. Also, in 1407, Gongma Dragpa Gyaltsen, the fifth ruler of the Phagmodrupa, sent Buddha images to the Yongle emperor.
26 Sold at Bonhams, New York, 19 March 2018, lot 3033; HAR 61516.
27 Sharma, Giri & Chakraverty (eds.), Indian Art Treasures: Suresh Neotia Collection, 2006, p. 81, leaves 27-30.
28 Heller, Tibetan Art, 1999, p. 148.