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HOME : Chinese Art : Qing Dynasty (Ching) : Wooden Sculpture of the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra
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Wooden Sculpture of the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra - X.0709
Origin: China
Circa: 17 th Century AD
Dimensions: 33" (83.8cm) high x 32" (81.3cm) wide
Collection: Chinese
Medium: Wood

Location: Great Britain
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This imposing Bodhisattva dates from the dynamic period surrounding the collapse of the M’ing Dynasty and the rise of the Q’ing, in the second half of the 17th century. The M’ing, founded in 1368 under the peasant emperor Hong Wu, was a militarily oriented socio-political entity much given to radical interpretations of Confucianism and with a very strong defensive ethos (the Great Wall dates to this period). However by the 17th century cracks had started to appear, young male heirs being manipulated as puppets by the ruling families, and the court became rotten with intrigue. To compound matters, the Manchurian Chinese cities were being attacked by local groups – dubbed the Manchus – who eventually invaded China and deposed the old regime. The last M’ing emperor, Chongzhen, hanged himself on Coal Hill overlooking the Forbidden City, bringing an end to his line and ushering in the Q’ing dynasty.

The Q’ing had been founded by Nurhaci in the early 17th century, and persisted until the collapse of imperial China in 1912 with the hapless Pu-Yi, the last emperor of China. Their isolationist policies, social control (all men required to shave their heads, wear queues, and wear Manchu rather than traditional Chinese dress) introspection and cultural conservatism was at odds with their liberality in certain social issues – such as forbidding the binding of women’s feet (later withdrawn due to social pressure from the populace). However, this cultural inflexibility – which grew as the emperors grew increasingly unaware of the world outside their palace walls, much less the country’s borders – was a difficult stance to maintain in the shadow of the European thalassocracies, and it may have been this which helped hasten the demise of the Imperial system.

The M’ing and the Q’ing dynasties were highly creative times, seeing the appearance of the first novels written in the vernacular, considerable development in the visual arts and outstanding craftsmanship in all fields. The present sculpture is a case in fact, and it is perhaps somewhat disarming to reflect that this peaceful figure dates from a period of such spectacular turmoil.

Samantabhadra Bodhisattva – also known as the Universally Worthy Bodhisattva – is one of the Three Venerables of Shakyamuni. As the most important of the triumvirate, this bodhisattva is always on the right of Shakyamuni Buddha, representing the guardian of the Law, the lord of the Law and the practice of all Buddhas. Samantabhadra is the patron of the Lotus Sutra and its devotees, and has close connection with the Avatamsaka Sutra. The figure is always depicted sitting atop an elephant, possibly as a reflection of the latter’s longevity, patience and sagacity, all qualities the Samantabhadra is said to share.

The right hand is in a position referred to as vitarka mudra, a gesture reflecting communication and explanation. The other hand rests on the lap in a relaxed pose of varada mudra. The face is rounded, impassive and collected. The elephant is recumbent: the Bodhisattva’s right foot is touching the ground and the sole of the left foot is pressed against the right thigh. The drapery – a tunic, scarves and a longer cape-like garment – is delicately carved and hangs gracefully from the shoulders, across the elephant’s back, and even down to the base of the incorporated pedestal base upon which the sculpture sits. The Bodhisattva is highly decorated, with a very ornate necklace, bracelets and an incredibly tall and flamboyant crown that more than doubles the height of the head. The hair is arranged in ringlets around the crown’s perimeter. The elephant is wearing a harness around the face, and displays the small ears typical of the Indian pachyderm variety. The trunk is swept back to the animal’s right, and the eyes are inlaid with glass. The patina is excellent, the detailing finely carved and the condition excellent. This is a beautiful and uncommon piece that merits a place in any serious collection of Eastern art, but would be equally impressive in a domestic setting. - (X.0709)


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