My Account Register

Asian Deities: a Primer to Religious Figures in Sculpture with a Focus on Gilt Bronze

The imagery of Asian religious sculptural figures can be bewildering. Distinguishing Chinese deities from Japanese and Indian from Thai can be a daunting challenge. With multiple materials ranging from wood to gilt bronze and figures taken from Hindu, Buddhist, and other religions it is not an easy task.

Asian art for sale, Chinese gilt bronze for sale, chinese gilt bronze at auction, Buddhist art for sale, Buddhist art at auction, antique chinese art, ming dynasty chinese art.

Chinese Gilt Bronze Figure of Vajrasattva, Early Ming Dynasty $1,530,000.00

 Asian art for sale,Chinese gilt bronze for sale,chinese gilt bronze at auction,Buddhist art for sale,Buddhist art at auction,antique chinese art,ming dynasty chinese art

In this primer I’ll review the most common Asian deities and provide pointers about how to distinguish the sculpture of one Asian culture from another.  This is useful as an introduction and will provide you with an insight into what terms are commonly used in this field, and what they mean.

 

 

 

 

 

MATERIALS

 

WOOD

With sculpture, there is a hierarchy of value based upon material. Generally, the most common figures are those that are made of easy-to-work organic materials, usually wood. Wood figures can be painted or, more commonly, lacquered. Small, carved wooden figures were made in large numbers and are relatively common, while large, imposing wooden figures were most often made for important religious sites, and are therefore much scarcer, and thus usually more valuable.

-Asian art for sale, Chinese gilt bronze for sale, chinese gilt bronze at auction, Buddhist art for sale, Buddhist art at auction, antique chinese art, ming dynasty chinese art.

Khmer Sandstone Torso of a Male Deity, Angkor Period, Bakong Style $12,600.00

Asian art for sale, Chinese gilt bronze for sale, chinese gilt bronze at auction, Buddhist art for sale, Buddhist art at auction, antique chinese art, ming dynasty chinese art.

Chinese Lacquered Wood Figure of a Guandi, Ming Dynasty $63,000.00

STONE

Stone religious figures are similar to those in wood, but almost always created for large public buildings. Some were created as architectural embellishments, others as independent sculpture. Many were originally painted, but most have lost their pigments through exposure and often burial. There are many images of buddhas created in Jade, and Jadeite, however we will not address them in this blog.

By far, the most desirable types of religious sculpture for collectors are those in metal, usually bronze. 

GILT BRONZE

Asian art for sale, Chinese gilt bronze for sale, chinese gilt bronze at auction, Buddhist art for sale, Buddhist art at auction, antique chinese art, ming dynasty chinese art.

Tibetan Gilt Bronze Figure of a Seated Lama, 16th C. $103,125.00

Bronze is created from an alloy of copper and tin with smaller amounts of other metals. Bronze is less brittle, more durable and melts at a lower temperature than iron; it oxidizes only superficially. While most Hindu and Buddhist bronze figures are undecorated, others are covered in colored lacquer, and the highest-quality figures are those that are gilded. A lacquered or gilded surface enhances the appearance, and reflects the special devotional aspects of the figure.

“figures are often associated with legends, stories of great accomplishments that are represented by symbolic imagery that is meant to remind the viewer of the event.”

Gilding bronze can be accomplished by two processes. Mercury gilding is achieved by an amalgam of mercury mixed with gold, which is heated in a furnace where the mercury evaporates, leaving the gold on the surface. Once the gold has been annealed to the surface, it is polished, resulting in a resplendent shine. A less costly and less complicated process covers the bronze with thin sheets of gold under a transparent or burgundy lacquer surface.

IMAGERY

 

Asian art for sale, Chinese gilt bronze for sale, chinese gilt bronze at auction, Buddhist art for sale, Buddhist art at auction, antique chinese art, ming dynasty chinese art.

Mongolian Gilt Bronze Seated Figure, Tara, 17th/18th C. $487,500.00

In Asia, gilded bronze figures are found in the Himalayan cultures of India, Tibet, and Nepal; China, Japan, Thailand, Korea, and other Asian societies. Gilded bronze figures are the apogee of metal sculpture. Most figures have a devotional purpose and are either Hindu or Buddhistic and frequently incorporate elements from both sources. 

Images are often distinguished by their attributes, which are physical characteristics that represent an element of their personality, protective powers, or emotions. A vengeful figure will often have a grimacing expression; a benevolent figure, an expression of calm and quiet dignity. Protective figures will sometimes brandish swords or other weapons. In addition to the appearance, figures are often associated with legends, stories of great accomplishments that are represented by symbolic imagery that is meant to remind the viewer of the event.

MUDRA

Asian art for sale, Chinese gilt bronze for sale, chinese gilt bronze at auction, Buddhist art for sale, Buddhist art at auction, antique chinese art, ming dynasty chinese art.

Tibetan Gilt Bronze Figure of a Seated Lama, 16th C. $103,125.00

Ritual hand gestures, called mudra, originated from dance, where positioning the hands and fingers in a specific manner would have an effect on the dancer and also convey meaning to the viewer. Many bronze figures of Asian deities have the hands displaying a particular mudra. 

The abhaya mudra represents peace, protection and the dispelling of fear.

One of the most often seen is the abhaya mudra, formed by raising the right hand to shoulder height with the arm bent and palm facing forward with the fingers joined and pointing up, while the other arm is hanging down at the side of the figure. The abhaya mudra represents peace, protection and the dispelling of fear.

GILT-BRONZE BASES

One of the helpful identifying characteristics of gilt bronze figures, in addition to the imagery of the figure, is the base upon which the figure stands. In Tibet and China, these bases are often embellished with borders of upright lotus leaves, and in many instances the base itself is in the shape of a lotus leaf.

Asian art for sale, Chinese gilt bronze for sale, chinese gilt bronze at auction, Buddhist art for sale, Buddhist art at auction, antique chinese art, ming dynasty chinese art.

Sino-Tibetan Gilt Bronze Figure, 18th century, Sold for $144,000.00

In Tibetan and other Himalayan cultures, it is also common to find the underside of the base with a thin metal cover, incised with a vajra or dorje symbol, and within this sealed base is often contained a paper inscribed with a prayer.

Asian art for sale, Chinese gilt bronze for sale, chinese gilt bronze at auction, Buddhist art for sale, Buddhist art at auction, antique chinese art, ming dynasty chinese art.

Chinese Gilt Bronze Figure of Vajrasattva, Early Ming Dynasty $1,530,000.00

TYPES OF FIGURES MOST COMMONLY REPRESENTED

 

BUDDHA

Asian art for sale, Chinese gilt bronze for sale, chinese gilt bronze at auction, Buddhist art for sale, Buddhist art at auction, antique chinese art, ming dynasty chinese art.

Chinese Gilt Bronze Standing Buddha on Lotus Base, 17th/18th C. $108,135.60

The most important and common figure depicts Buddha, a person who has reached an understanding of the world and universe in which we live, and who exists to lead others to the same state of understanding. Some figures depict the historical Buddha, a prince who lived in the 5th/6th century B.C.E., but others represent an idealized Buddha.

 

Most figures of Buddha are seated with legs crossed on a raised base. Images of Buddha usually wear a double robe, often with an incised foliate decorated border and have long, pendulous ears and a cranial bump, called an ushnisha. The hair is tightly coiled and often has a raised bump above the eyes in the center of the forehead, called the urna, and the hands are raised in a mudra.

Although most figures of Buddha are sitting, in Thailand and other South Asian societies, figures of Buddha are often standing, reclining or walking, and unlike the figures of China, Japan, or the Himalayan cultures, the cranial bump is sometimes augmented by a spike or spire.

BODHISATTVA AND LOHAN

A bodhisattva is a person who has not yet attained enlightenment, but is on the path towards enlightenment. A bodhisattva can take many forms, and in Japan is called bosatsu. The most well-known bosatsu in Japan is Jizo, a monk, depicted most often with a shaven head and wearing a long robe. This figure is similar to but different from the Tibetan arhat, an enlightened disciple of the Buddha, called a luohan in China, who also frequently appears in the visage of a monk.

Did you know Maitreya is the only Buddhist deity revered as both a Buddha and a Bodhisattva?

GUANYIN AND AVALOKITESVARA

Asian art for sale, Chinese gilt bronze for sale, chinese gilt bronze at auction, Buddhist art for sale, Buddhist art at auction, antique chinese art, ming dynasty chinese art.

Chinese Silver Inlaid Bronze Figure of Guanyin, 18th C. $8,125.00

One of the most important Buddhist figures represented in gilded bronze is that of Guanyin, the goddess of mercy or compassion. Called Kannon in Japan, or alternatively in China, as a male in the manifestation of the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, this figure is often standing and wearing long, gently draped robes. In both China and Japan, this figure usually is identified by the graceful appearance, heavy lidded eyes, long pendulous earlobes, and open-necked robe revealing a long beaded necklace.  Here Guanyin is displayed in a bronze form, inlaid with silver.

Seated versions in the posture of royal ease have one raised leg with the other draped over the base on which the figure is seated. Although most often represented as female in China, the figure was also represented as male or female in other Asian cultures. Frequently, Chinese versions of Guanyin are depicted with a small child or attendant.

TARA

Tara is another popular bronze figure found throughout Asian cultures, but not often in China. The consort of Avalokitesvara, this figure is a bodhisattva, and is found standing or sitting and usually is voluptuously modeled, wearing multiple long strands of beaded necklaces, a crown, and often with lotus flowers rising from each shoulder.

There are many manifestations or characteristics of Tara, most of which are identified with the colors green or white.

Asian art for sale, Chinese gilt bronze for sale, chinese gilt bronze at auction, Buddhist art for sale, Buddhist art at auction, antique chinese art, ming dynasty chinese art.

Mongolian Gilt Bronze Seated Figure, Tara, 17th/18th C. $487,500.00

SHIVA AND PARVATI

Asian art for sale, Chinese gilt bronze for sale, chinese gilt bronze at auction, Buddhist art for sale, Buddhist art at auction, antique chinese art, ming dynasty chinese art

– Indian Bronze Figure of Parvati, 19th C. $11,760.00

Shiva, a Hindu deity, is identified by a third eye in the forehead. This figure usually appears in South Asian cultures where Hinduism and Buddhism mingled. Often in a regal stance, the figure of Shiva frequently wears a crown and holds a trident, emblematic of authority. His consort is Parvati, the divine mother goddess whose manifestations are represented by all other goddesses. When alongside Shiva, Parvati is usually depicted with two arms, when alone, often with four and standing beside or on a tiger or lion.

 

From the ancient beginnings of Buddhism in India and its spread by pilgrims throughout Asia, local spiritual beliefs, practices, and imagery were adopted and adapted by the different peoples along the way. Buddhism was layered on local Hindu, animist, or other beliefs, and a pantheon of deities, gods, goddesses, spirits, forces and manifestations of human emotions and experiences combined to create the imagery that is unique to each Asian culture. Understanding the interwoven texture of these cultures is the foundation for identifying any Asian sculptural work. 

This article written by Lark Mason was first published on Antiques Roadshow website:

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/roadshow/fts/grandrapids_200805A43.html

The Importance of Ritual in Chinese Art

Archaic to Present Ritual Bronze Forms

In China, rituals were an important aspect of formal and informal life. Many of the most striking examples of the importance of ritual in Chinese art are found in objects. Such as jade forms included as part of a burial ceremony during the Shang and earlier periods and ancient bronze cooking and wine vessels.

Chinese Archaic Gu Form Bronze, Shang Dynasty, Ancient chinese art for sale,

Chinese Archaic Gu Form Bronze, Shang Dynasty, Sold for $18,125.00

Many of these designs were used in later periods in China to create works of art that hinted at their ancient, ritual origins but were most often decorative and devoid of any ritual significance. One of these Chinese ritual wine vessels was the gu, a trumpet-shaped form that incorporated stylized animals and bands of angular decorative elements.

Chinese Cloisonne Gu form vase, 18th century, gilt bronze, 1700's asian art, Chinese art for sale, history of cloisonne

Chinese Cloisonne Gu-Form Vase, 18th Century, sold for $114,186.00

Later versions of the gu, such as this 18th century cloisonne example were made for someone who understood the ancient bronze source, but appreciated the complexity and beauty of the brightly colored interpretation in cloisonne.

Vintage Chinese Vase, Sterling silver, silver, Asian silver, Cloisonne, 20th century, antique

Chinese Enamel and Silver Gu Form Vase, 20th century, sold for $3,507.50

Modern interpretations, such as this silver example, hint at the earlier importance of ritual in the use of a precious metal.  Celebrating an archaic Chinese ritual form in a luxurious way.  

Ritual Paintings

Land Water Ritual, chinese painting, buddhist art, buddhistic ritual painting, land and water ritual

Chinese Qing Imperial Buddhist Water & Land Ritual Painting, 17th/18th century, sold for $246,875.00

This Chinese Buddhist “water and land deliverance” ritual painting shows the cycle of redemption and rebirth of death and reincarnation. In this example, a female deity with attendants stands among pastel clouds in an etherial heavenly landscape. The viewer is taken from the temporal to the eternal, and in contemplation would be transported beyond the many challenges of daily life in a reflection upon eternity.  With a miniature mountain representing the earth below.

Miniature mountain, jade mountain, awesome chinese art, beautiful antiques, gold, gilt bronze, silver

Chinese Zitan, Hardstone, Gilt-Bronze, Silver, Other Materials Miniature Mountain 19th century, sold for $258,000.00

Ancestral portraiture is an important part of Chinese funerary traditions. Individuals commissioned their ancestors portraits, worshipped and cared for these objects for both self serving, and pious purposes.  The belief is that one’s ancestors still influence your life. Though no longer living, their worship will bring longevity, financial success, and other benefits.  Below is one such ancestral painting.  These objects have both cultural and historic importance. Through them we see what silks, rugs, furniture, and jewelry were considered important.

Chinese Ancient art, qing dynasty, ritual art, ancestral portrait

Chinese Imperial Ancestor Portrait, Color Inks on Silk, 19th Century, sold for $90,000

Ritual is important to all cultures, but particularly so to China. Ritual objects and paintings enabled the participant to more fully comprehend the significance of the ideas being communicated, in the past and in the present.  And they give us a window into an ancient world with different ideals, and a unique culture.

For more information on Ancestral Portraits:

 

For more information on Bronze Censers and Mythical Animals:

Copyright © 2017 iGavel. All Rights Reserved. iGavel Inc.
887 Cross Street, New Braunfels, TX 78130
phone:212.289.5588 Office@iGavelAuctions.com