Like a prayer

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 46, Spring 2016

Page 51

Like a prayer

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 46, Spring 2016

Page 51

Like a prayer

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 46, Spring 2016

Page 51

The beauty of this figure of a Buddhist disciple is clear to all – Olivia Hamilton reveals its hidden meanings

Give him a hand
The figure holds his hands in front of his chest, left folded over right: he is Mahakasyapa. Most sculptures of the Buddha, his acolytes or bodhisattvas (enlightened beings) can be identified by stylised hand gestures, often known as mudras, or by distinctive attributes. Inside a temple, a representation of Mahakasyapa is often found flanking a central Buddha, with his fellow disciple, Ananda – typically indicated by palms pressed together as in prayer – placed on the other side. Mahakasyapa and Ananda are both monks known as luohan in Chinese, or arhat in Sanskrit.

Clothes make the man
Buddhist figures are typically depicted wearing long robes hanging in folds, based on simple Indian monastic clothing. But the influence of Chinese traditions can be seen here: the figure's robe is clearly fashioned from rich and heavy cloth, more ornate than a monastic robe; its borders and hems are lavishly decorated with scrolling lotus, a popular motif in the Ming period; and the buckle is formed with a stylised lingzhi fungus, a mushroom thought to bring immortality, and one of the most enduring images in Chinese art.

Beauty from dirt
The lotus – a beautiful flower that emerges fresh from mud - represents divine birth and purity transcending chaos and despair. This Buddhist figure is raised on a pedestal formed of radiating lotus-petals, a visually striking and common motif. The pedestal here is a 'double-lotus', with both upturned and downturned petals, which provides a sense of balance as well as elevating the figure.

Precious metal
From earliest times, bronze was one of the most valued materials in Chinese culture: together with jade, it has been found in the tombs of kings and nobles since the Shang period (perhaps as far back as 1600 BC). Chinese bronzes were almost always cast, rather than beaten using the repoussé technique; this figure was made using the 'lost-wax' method. From about the 7th century AD, 'lost-wax' was preferred to the more ancient 'piece-mould' method, since it could be used for more complex and ambitious designs. At 167cm high, this figure is exceptionally large: its size and weight alone would have really tested the technical skill of the craftsmen. There are very few late Ming bronze Buddhist figures of comparable size and complexity.

Frowning majesty
Mahakasyapa is an older, sterner presence than his more youthful counterpart Ananda, as is clear from his heavy, frowning brows. As well as his overbearing expression, the sheer size of this figure must have invoked a sense of fearful awe. He nevertheless exudes a comforting strength, holding out the promise of fatherly guidance for errant believers.

Ears looking at you
To Western viewers, one of the more puzzling features of Buddhist figures are their elongated earlobes. This portrayal originated in ancient India as a mark of nobility because the ears of aristocrats there were typically stretched by the weight of their jewelry. The historic Buddha, Sakyamuni Gautama, was born a king in India in the 6th century BC, albeit a king whose later enlightenment and noble teachings provided the foundation for a world religion. Many Buddhist iconographic features are thus Indian in origin, but introduced to China probably from the mid-4th century AD by monks traveling along the Silk Road from Tibet and Central Asia, carrying the Buddhist sutras and religious images. Such stretched earlobes appear on the majority of Buddhist figures.

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