A copper alloy figure of Avalokiteshvara Central Tibet, circa 12th century

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Lot 10
A copper alloy figure of Avalokiteshvara
Central Tibet, circa 12th century

Sold for US$ 569,000 inc. premium
A copper alloy figure of Avalokiteshvara
Central Tibet, circa 12th century
Standing with a beaded tassel falling between his legs, descending from the central pleat of his dhoti patterned with incised foliage motifs, his belt with a confidently executed kirtimukha mask at the centre from which extend strings of beaded swags encircling his hips and sitting below his flexed stomach and the arc of his ribcage, his hands incised with palm lines, the right displaying the gesture of supreme generosity while the left holds the stem of a fresh lotus bud, as two sinuously stemmed lotuses flank his body and bloom by his shoulders with robust petals, he is adorned with elaborate jewellery including armbands with a navaratana (nine-jewel) surrounded by foliate scrolls and an ascendant bud or jewel issuing from lotus sepals, a beaded necklace and another with a central navaratana medallion and leaf-shaped pendants, and a sacred chord draping over the left shoulder and traveling the contours of his body in the round, he has large circular earrings inserted into his earlobes flanking his youthful face with a downcast gaze, broad cheeks and undulating eyes centered by a raised rectangular urna below a row of curls before the three-leaf crown with side ribbons and a central leaf with beaked kirtimukha (face of glory) with lotus stems extending from its mouth and the same floral-jewel motif as appears on his arms, tucked behind it sits Buddha in dhyanasana before the neatly wound locks of his elaborate jatamukata and surmounting lotus sepals.
19 1/2 in. (49.5 cm) high


  • The statuette is youthful and elegant, yet commanding and robust. Judging from its size, lustrous brassy-bronze surface, and the technical skill required for its casting, it would have likely served as a central shrine image. The Buddha seated in his hair identifies him as Avalokiteshvara, the patron bodhisattva of Tibet, in his aspect as Padmapani, the 'lotus holder' – a form popular in East India and the Himalayas in the medieval period.

    While he pinches the stem of a lotus bud with his right hand, the other two in bloom by his shoulders serve no strict iconographic purpose. Rather, they ornament the bodhisattva, adding symmetry to his frame. Their sinuous stems, flanking the full length of his body attest to the quality of the piece and the technical accomplishment of its producers. His crown is also especially rich, featuring a beaked kirtimukha mask, clearly distinct from that at the center of his belt, a recurrent feature in bronzes of bodhisattvas from Central Tibet. These aesthetic merits are also complemented by the piece's clear art historical value, representing a style emerging from a critical period of Tibetan history referred to by Jane Casey Singer as, "Tibet's apprenticeship in India" (Kossak & Singer, Sacred Visions, New York, 1998, p. 6).
    The late 11th century saw renewed interest in Buddhism in Tibet, manifested in sustained efforts to gather East Indian devotional texts, paintings, and sculpture and thus seek out the "pure" form of the tradition from the land of its origins. Generations of Tibetans studied at the renowned monasteries of Bengal and Bihar in the Pala kingdom, while numerous Indian monks also visited Tibetan sites. One master in particular, Atisha (982-1054), is credited with aiding Buddhist reform in Tibet during this period after accepting the invitation of King Yeshe O of West Tibet in 1042, and later spending ten years in Central Tibet. There he imparted mostly Mahayana doctrines, their young, unencumbered bodhisattvas appealing to the Tibetan imagination. Atisha also advised the establishment of monasteries.

    Steven Kossak has examined the close stylistic relationship between Pala paintings and a mural of Maitreya at Drathang (fig. 1, see Laird, Murals of Tibet, Taschen forthcoming 2015), one such monastery founded in 1081 following Atisha's advice (see Kossak, Painted Images of Enlightenment, Mumbai, 2010, pp. 48-53). The facial type, with bow-shaped eyes and full lips compare to the present sculpture as well, helping to root the latter in the Central Tibetan tradition. Also, from the remaining sepals at the top, we can deduce that the sculptor originally replicated a similar surmounting jewel above the jatamukata.

    Such characteristics can also be traced back to a few known Pala bronzes held in Central Tibetan monasteries, dating around the 12th century as published in von Schroeder, Buddhist Sculpture in Tibet, vol. 1, Hong Kong, 2001. The central navaratana pendant of the present lot's necklace is also seen in a figure of Manjushri in sNye thang monastery (108A, p. 314) as well as an almost identical tracing of the sacred thread (ratnopavita) and a similar short dhoti with central kirtimukha and beaded swags around the hips. An Avalokiteshvara in the Potala Palace (72B, p. 239-40) displays a similar beaded tassel with a leftward sway falling beyond his knees, and demonstrates that the figurative type of the standing bodhisattva flanked by tall-stemmed lotuses derives from Pala sculpture. Lastly, a large Manjushri in Brong rtse monastery (109B-C, p. 317-8) displays these tall lotus stems and much of the same elements previously discussed, as well as comparable wristbands, earrings, rectangular urna, and crown ribbons. The stylistic heritage of the present lot is thus connected to such Pala bronzes in Tibet, and suggests a similar date. Close attention to the modeling shows a clear understanding of the iconography. Each element is clearly defined but chased with a certain roughness, typifying this period of "apprenticeship", wherein Tibetan craftsmen were learning from and reproducing products of Indian Buddhism.

    While other subjects of this style and period are more widely dispersed in private collections and museums, surviving examples of this type of a standing, crowned, lotus-holding bodhisattva are scant. Two of similar size to the present lot, depicting Manjushri, but with lotus adornments now lost, are also published by von Schroeder (ibid.). The first (286D-F, pp. 1102-3), housed in Jo khang monastery, exhibits a similar lustrous brassy-bronze finish, and shares a comparable modelling of the necklaces. Also, the ratnopavita falls in a straight vertical line across his torso, although bending higher on the hips. The second (252D-F, pp. 1024-5), held in Zhwanlu monastery, despite being gilded and composed of a different alloy, is perhaps most closely related to the present lot. All jewellery components share nearly identical treatment. Compare also, the diamond shaped palm, the slightly fleshy waist with a vertical furrow descending from the navel, the length of the ratnopavita, the curling hair before the crown, and a certain interiority to the expression. The comparisons leave no doubt that the present sculpture joins these two in representing what von Schroeder terms the "Tibetan Monastic" period.

    Starting in the 11th century, this period ended with the Muslim conquest of the Pala regions in the 13th century. Following the decimation of the great monasteries, Central Tibetan patrons turned to the masterful Newari craftsmen of Nepal to respond to the demand for shrine images. Later examples attributed to Central Tibet show the hallmarks of Newari influence blending with earlier features seen in the present lot; details of the jewellery, such as the beaked kirtimukha remain, for instance, but these are combined with the sinuous poses, central pleated hems, and overall refinement of Newari work (cf. an example in the John and Berthe Ford collection, Pal, Desire and Devotion, London, 2001, no. 171, pp. 294-5, and another in the Zimmerman collection see Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, Dieux et démons de l'Himâlaya, 1977, no. 128, pp. 143-4 or Pal, Art of the Himalayas, New York, 1991, no. 66, p. 126). Of clear aesthetic and historic value, this rare Padmapani preserves in its lines and contours a seminal portion of Tibetan history, and the history of Buddhism at large, wherein Tibetans retrieved and preserved so much of the wealth of Buddhist India before supplanting it in reputation as the Buddhist holy land of Asia.

    S.P.R.L. Asie-Afrique, Brussels, 1978
    Private American Collection

    Caption for Fig. 1
    Courtesy of Thomas Laird, © 2011
A copper alloy figure of Avalokiteshvara Central Tibet, circa 12th century
A copper alloy figure of Avalokiteshvara Central Tibet, circa 12th century
A copper alloy figure of Avalokiteshvara Central Tibet, circa 12th century
A copper alloy figure of Avalokiteshvara Central Tibet, circa 12th century
A copper alloy figure of Avalokiteshvara Central Tibet, circa 12th century
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