A GILT COPPER ALLOY FIGURE OF AVALOKITESHVARA SAHASRABHUJA EKADASAMUKHA
BY SONAM GYALTSEN (A.15TH CENTURY), CENTRAL TIBET, CIRCA 1430
Himalayan Art Resources item no.61516
26 1/8 in. (67.7 cm) high
FOOTNOTES
西藏中部 1430年 銅鎏金十一面千手觀音像
銘文落款為索南堅贊之作

Published
Apollo, London, June 1968, p.CLX.
Apollo, London, August 1977, p.167, fig.10.
Ulrich von Schroeder, Indo-Tibetan Bronzes, Hong Kong, 1982, pp.452-3, no.124D.

Provenance
Oriental Antiques Ltd, London, by 1968
Sotheby's, London, 9 May 1977, lot 167
Private English Collection, 1977-2014

THE JAMCHEN AVALOKITESHVARA BY SONAM GYALTSEN

Written in collaboration with Jeff Watt, February 2018

Encapsulating the crescendo in Tibet's gilt bronze casting tradition occurring in the 15th century, this magnificent sculpture of the Lord of Compassion in his supreme form is a central masterpiece by the hand of Sonam Gyaltsen (active 15th century) made around 1430, upon the completion of Jamchen monastery in Central Tibet.

Remarkably, all of these details are mentioned in the sculpture's lengthy inscription. With yet another named artist coming to light from the study of inscriptions, the discovery of the master craftsman Sonam Gyaltsen provided by this bronze prompts us to consider a paradigm shift in the field of Tibetan art history, away from the ever-more questionable narrative of the ubiquitous 'anonymous' Tibetan artisan.

Although previously unattributed, other pieces now clearly by Sonam Gyaltsen have long been lauded among the prized possessions of numerous international museums for reflecting the zeitgeist of classical Tibetan gilded sculpture. They draw unmistakable comparison with the present bronze, which provides the key to revealing the master sculptor's identity for the first time.

Its inscription also brings to light the phenomenal patronage of the Rinpung dynasty (15th-16th centuries), as yet little discussed in Tibetan art history's popular circles, whose seat of power was in Shigatse, Central Tibet, and who mostly patronised the Sakya order. It names a famous Sakya teacher: Zhonnu Gyalchog; two brothers: Norbu Zangpo and Palzang; and the artist: Sonam Gyaltsen. Written in Tibetan U-chen script along the top of the lotus base's circumference, it reads:

༄༄།སྭསྟི། སྤྱན་རས་གཟིགས་དབང་དངོས་གྲུབ་འབྱུང་གནས་འདི། རྒྱལ་སྲས་གཞོན་ནུ་རྒྱལ་མཆོག་བཀས་བསྐུལ་ནས། མི་དབང་ནོར་བཟང་དཔལ་བཟང་སྐུ་མཆེད་ཀྱིས། ལྷག་བསམ་དག་པས་འཕགས་སྡེའི་མཆོད་གནས་བཞེངས། བསོད་ནམས་རྒྱལ་མཚན་ལག་པས་རྩེ་ལས་འཁྲུངས། དགེ་བས་འགྲོ་ཀུན་ཀུན་མཁྱེན་མྱུར་ཐོབ་ཤོག།

"This source of the attainments of Lord Avalokiteshvara, requested by the bodhisattva Zhonnu Gyalchog, [fulfilled] by the ruling brothers Norzang and Palzang, with pure motivation to build a place of worship for noble beings, [then, this sculpture was made] by the hands of Sonam Gyaltsen: May the accumulation of merit lead all beings to quickly attain the omniscient stage."

At the turn of the 15th century, Shigatse in Tsang province was the second most prosperous city in Tibet. Infighting within the ruling Phagmodrupa family allowed the local Rinpung clan to seize control of the city and establish their own dynasty, lasting until 1565. Norbu Zangpo (1403-66), referred to as 'Norzang' in the sculpture's inscription, was the third and most powerful monarch of the Rinpung dynasty, and ruled between 1435 and 1466. Because of his comparative importance, Norbu Zangpo is also simply known as 'Rinpungpa'. Less is known about his brother Palzang, but the fact that the two are mentioned together in the inscription suggests that Norbu Zangpo had not ascended the throne yet, placing its date before 1435.

The events leading to the creation of the sculpture described in the inscription also corroborate that Norbu Zangpo had yet to ascend the throne. The brothers were students of Zhonnu Gyalchog (b. 14th century; tbrc.org no.P1943), a prominent Sakya lama recognised for his treatises on mind training. He was a direct pupil of Je Tsongkapa (1357-1419). The 'place of worship' in the inscription undoubtedly refers to Jamchen Chode monastery near Shigatse, which was either founded or enlarged by Zhonnu Gyalchog and Norbu Zangpo in c.1427/1430 (cf. Czaja, Mediaeval rule in Tibet, Vienna, 2013, pp.481-4). The inscription records that the sculpture was created at the culmination of this project, thereby allowing us to narrowly date it to c.1430, along with similar bronzes by the artist that were possibly part of the same or adjacent iconographic programmes within Jamchen monastery. The monastery was Sakya by tradition, but later fell into disrepair, being renovated, converted to Gelug, and renamed Jampa Ling by the Fifth Dalai Lama, Lobzang Gyatso (1617-82).

Lastly, the inscription unequivocally states that this spectacular sculpture was created by Sonam Gyaltsen. No other historic record of him is broadly known to date. We can only infer that he flourished by the second quarter of the 15th century, working at that time in the region of Greater Shigatse. Moreover, it is likely that his work at Jamchen monastery would have won him considerable renown, if his fame had not already secured him this prestigious commission in the first place.

The large sculpture depicts Avalokiteshvara Sahasrabhuja Ekadasamukha - the All Seeing, All Sided Lord with One Thousand Hands and Eleven Faces, who looks in every direction to save all creatures. Since the first Dharma King of the Yarlung Dynasty, Songtsen Gampo (604-50), Avalokiteshvara has been the primary tutelary deity of Tibet, incarnating spiritual and political rule. Here he appears in his supreme cosmic form expressing his infinite capacity with a multitude of heads and arms. The iconography follows either the Palmo or Jowo traditions of depicting the deity with benign expressions except for the penultimate wrathful head. Despite the popularity and central status of Avalokitesvara, very few examples in the form of Sahasrabhujalokeshvara Ekadasamukha are extant, and none of this scale are known to be held in private hands.

A close formal analysis of his superbly cast masterpiece reveals a few idiomatic features of Sonam Gyaltsen's sculptural style, surmised as follows. The sculpture is exquisitely gilded over a pinkish copper alloy. The lotus base is completed in the round and includes engraved patterns of foliate imagery on a band above the foot rim. Its petals are exquisitely modelled with symmetrically curling plump inner corolla terminating in curlicue tips, set within swelled outer petals with pointed tips, in turn flanked by jagged chased sepals. While surviving unsealed, a gilded edge to the foot rim underneath suggests that Sonam Gyaltsen may have gilded his consecration plates.

The physiognomy of his deity is slender and nimble, but not attenuated, and with rounded joints between the limbs. Great care is taken to portray the anatomy of every finger, always modelled in a position different from the next. Hair descends naturalistically in long tresses over the shoulders and arms, but is also more distinctively arranged into a thick fringe of rounded curls before the crown. In the case of this benign Avalokiteshvara, the deity wears silk garments that hug the legs below, but also drape on the sides to accentuate their weight and sumptuousness. These garments are also engraved with fine patterns on a broad hem or section, but otherwise left plain as a golden backdrop for the fine turquoise jewellery inlaid into each item of regalia.

Sonam Gyaltsen treats jewellery in a particularly unique and refined manner. Each inset stone is small and precisely cut in a round or teardrop shape, except for a rectangular central belt ornament. While inset into every piece of regalia, the components of which are uniform in Tibetan art (crowns, armbands, aprons, etc.), the stones are small (especially if one were to compare them to contemporaneous work at Densatil) and twinkle, like stars peppering a brilliant golden sunset.

The designs of bracelets and armlets on the deity's primary limbs, as well as his crown leaves are a most telling indicator of Sonam Gylatsen's hand. Each shares a common denominator that becomes richer and more complex as they near the head of the deity. Starting with the bracelet, from the band's beaded edge extend three lotus petals bearing a piece of inset turquoise at the centre of a pointed five-lobed leaf. At the armlets this basic element is larger and more elaborate, supplemented with an additional piece of turquoise and foliate sprays framing the three initial lotus petals, and a further lotus-borne turquoise pendant hanging from a beaded chain below. Moving to the crown, the same element appears again, but now the five-lobed leaves are more pointed and rendered in openwork, while longer sprays flank the three lotus petals, and the central crown leaf is inset with four additional pieces of turquoise. Furthermore, the lowermost swags of his bejewelled apron also terminate with this same leaf motif. The aforementioned lotus-borne turquoise pendant swinging from the armlet is another distinctive marker for Sonam Gyaltsen's oeuvre, and is repeated throughout the apron.

Lastly, to address what many would concede is a sculpture's most important feature, Sonam Gyaltsen appears to depict a perfectly composed face for his subject, with a unique and enigmatic expression that evokes the ineffable spirit of the deity – in the present case, a beautifully-featured calm, gentle face at rest, with a soothing, compassionate smile.

A number of pieces in museum and private collections have long been regarded as similar, but can now be positively attributed to Sonam Gyaltsen given their obvious conformity to the aforementioned indicators of his work, underscored by the Jamchen Avalokiteshvara's inscription.

Chief among these are:
• A Guhyamanjuvajra and a Vajrabhairava, formerly of the Pan Asian and Berti Aschmann Collections, now in the Rietberg Museum (Figs.1 & 2; Uhlig, On the Path to Enlightenment, Zurich, 1995, pp.168-71, nos.113 & 114);
• A Yamantaka in the JPHY Collection, published in von Schroeder, Indo-Tibetan Bronzes, Hong Kong, 1981, p.451, no.123E, which most closely matches the present sculpture's double lotus base with engraved design;
• A Ghuyasamaja in The Qing Palace Collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing, published in Complete Collection of the Treasures of the Palace Museum, 60: Buddhist Statues of Tibet, Hong Kong, 1998 p192, no.183;
• A Purnabhadra in The Philadelphia Museum of Art (acc.#2001-44-1);
• A Chakrasamvara preserved in Tibet, published in von Schroeder, Buddhist Sculpture in Tibet, Vol. II, Hong Kong, 2001, p.964, no.232A;
• Another Chakrasamvara, sold by Bonhams, New York, 16 March 2015, lot 18;
• A Mahachakra Vajrapani also within this sale (lot 3034).

Whereas scholars have debated whether most of these sculptures should be dated to the 15th or 16th century, the Jamchen Avalokiteshvara is the linchpin that finally allows us to reattribute them with relative certainly to a concurrent timeframe. What is more, the group of sculptures mentioned above could well have appeared together in their original context as part of the same sculptural mandala, or as part of Jamchen monastery's broader sculptural programme. The Avalokiteshvara, being more than double the size of the any comparable piece, and bearing the only dedicatory inscription known to date, very likely stood at the centre of a chapel's ensemble. This would also be congruent with Avalokiteshvara's central position within the Tibetan Buddhist pantheon and cosmic form represented here.

However, our inscription only says so much, and Sonam Gyaltsen could also have been commissioned to produce sculptures for various monasteries throughout Tibet. We should also not jump to the conclusion that he was only confined to one medium. For instance, he might also have painted. His Avalokiteshvara Sahasrabhuja Ekadasamukha represents the Bodhisattva with a thousand arms symbolically, but its actual count is forty-two, with a complete set of eight primary arms and thirty-four encircling arms. This is a rarely seen configuration and perhaps the only other known example is the subject of a mural on the second floor of Gyantse Kumbum (Fig.3), which is part of a Sakya enclave no more than 60 miles from Shigatse. Founded in 1427, Gyantse Kumbum is contemporary with Sonam Gyaltsen's sculpture for Jamchen. This overlap of timing, geography, clergy, and iconography is enough for us to at least consider that Sonam Gyaltsen might have also been responsible for some of the incredible artistic products of Gyantse Kumbum.

More information beyond this masterpiece and this initial inscription will hopefully come to light to help us better understand Sonam Gyaltsen's work and its relationship to the prevalent styles he would no doubt have been aware of and perhaps responding to, such as the Pala style murals of Shalu monastery with their foliate banded jewellery, the gilded tashi gomang stupas of Drigung and Densatil monasteries, and the imperial style of the Yongle court. Also, his relationship to other master artists, such as teachers and apprentices, or contemporaries that he might have collaborated with in catering to the great flourish in artistic patronage within Tsang Province in the 15th century. This pivotal sculpture begs us to presume these historic persons can be found the longer we look for them. The reading of its inscription promotes it to one of the most important surviving sculptures from Tibet of any period, identifying an artist we are now compelled to include among the legendary giants of Himalayan art.

Related auctions

Contacts
  1. Edward Wilkinson
    Specialist
    Bonhams
    Work
    Hong Kong
    Hong Kong
    Work +852 2918 4321