Visualizing the Divine: Early Chinese Buddhist Bronzes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Updated: Apr 17, 2021
Hope everyone is doing well and staying safe! Summer went by too quickly now that the Ontario government has loosened some of the pandemic restrictions. We're slowly seeing things getting better in Toronto with more public areas opening up. Hopefully we will have a greater sense of normalcy in the coming months.
One of the exciting things for me these days is that the museums and art galleries in Toronto have finally opened up after months of closure. The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) reopened to the public on July 11 and the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) followed suit on July 23.
The situation definitely isn't a return to pre-Covid times - both institutions have shortened hours, have limited the number of visitors and offer only timed entries. This is still better than nothing, especially since their Asian Art galleries I visit aren't typically that busy to begin with.
This September I was really looking forward to attending the New York Asia Week shows at the end of the month, but it would be extremely difficult to make it with the current closure of the Canadian/USA border. I guess I'll be in Canada for the next little while (maybe even months!!!).
On this note, one of the blogs I always wanted to put together was a showcase of the amazing Chinese Buddhist bronze sculptures at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met) in New York.
The Met is by far one of my favourite museums to visit on the planet, and the Chinese Buddhist bronze section is one of the sections I will repeatedly visit. I always wanted to put together a kind of virtual tour for all of their Chinese Buddhist bronze highlights.
I've had positive feedback on some of my other blogs about museum collections, from one of my earlier examples like the Chinese Imperial porcelain at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts - Including the Paul and Helen Bernat Collection, to last year's The Thomson Collection of Chinese Snuff Bottles at the Art Gallery of Ontario.
The Met's collection of Chinese Buddhist bronzes is one of the strongest in North America with international renowned works spanning from the 5th Century until the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
Despite the historical Buddha Shakyamuni having lived in India during the 5th to 4th Century BC, his image did not begin to appear until the 1st and 2nd Century AD. Many of these pieces were found in the Ancient Region of Gandhara in modern day Pakistan. They were all notable for their Greek Hellenistic influence.
At that time, Buddhism did have a presence in China, but it wasn't until regular images of Shakyamuni appeared because of exposure along the Silk Road trade routes that this religion became more popular.
Older Chinese Buddhist images were still heavily influenced by Greco-Indian examples, especially in the depiction their hair, faces and robes. Earlier examples were carved in wood or moulded in clay, and tended to be portable for pilgrims.
Eventually, stone Buddhist sculptures were set up at important Buddhist sites along the Silk Road in Northern China for pilgrims and travellers to offer their prayers.
Bronze Buddhist images became prevalent as well, especially within the noble classes. The use of bronze casting techniques resulted in finer details and enhanced durability. Many bronze examples were gilded to imitate gold which further enhanced the nature of these Buddhist images.
Anyways, here are some of the wold-famous Chinese Buddhist bronze figures at the Met! I only selected a handful since there were too many to choose from.
Image 1. Large Gilt Bronze Figure of Buddha Maitreya, Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534).
This sculpture depicts Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future. This is one of the most famous examples in the world. Dated to 486 and standing at 140.5 cm (55 1/4 inches), he is the largest known early Chinese gilt bronze Buddhist figure. The drapery in the robe, and the curls in the hair are both reminiscent of Greco-Indian prototypes.
2. Large Gilt Bronze Altarpiece with Buddha Maitreya, Northern Wei Dynasty (386-524), dated to 524.
This is another magnificent piece depicting Maitreya, and is one of two complete altarpieces that are known to exist. The details and complexity of this group is truly outstanding.
Image 3. Gilt Bronze Figure of Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, Sui Dynasty (581-618), late 6th Century.
This is one of the earliest known depictions of Avalokiteshvara in China. Avalokiteshvara is the bodhisattva of compassion and later referred to as Guanyin. Like the Buddha, bodhisattvas are enlightened beings, but made the choice to remain on the earth to ease humanity's suffering.
Avalokiteshvara's left hand holds a bottle containing a sacred elixir, and his right hand wields a willow branch, which is said to have healing properties according to Buddhist texts.
Image 4. Gilt Bronze Figure of Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, Tang Dynasty (618-907).
Another figure of Avalokiteshvara, this one has the sensual contrapposto (counter-balance) pose typical of pinnacle Tang Dynasty figures. This figure still wields a jar containing a sacred elixir, and the crown features a small figure of Amida Buddha (the Buddha of Infinite Light).
5. Gilt Bronze Figure of Seated Buddha Vairocana, Liao Dynasty (907-1125).
Christie's Paris example
Jumping to the Liao Dynasty, this figure is Vairocana, the cosmic 'all-knowing' Buddha. The 'wisdom fist' hand gesture is very distinctive for this deity. This Vairocana has a graceful yet powerful presence.
Image 7. Gilt Bronze Seated Figure of Manjushri, Liao Dynasty (907-1125).
Another figure from the Liao Dynasty is this extremely rare image of Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom. This deity is missing the sword in his right hand which is supposed to cut through ignorance, and the left hand once held a book. The five knots of hair also helps identify this figure. This particular example seems extremely youthful for such a powerful deity.
Image 7. Gilt Bronze Standing Figure of Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, Dali Kingdom (938-1253).
This depiction of Avalokiteshvara is extremely unique because of the tall and slender proportions and its origin from the mysterious Dali Kingdom in China's Southwestern Yunnan province. We can tell this figure is Avalokiteshvara because of the figure of Amida Buddha in the crown. This figure has hand gestures in a rare 'preaching' pose.
I was fortunate to examine a similar Dali Kingdom example depicting a preaching Avalokiteshvara last year while I was in New York, which sold at Christie's, 'The Irving Collection' on 20 March 2019, lot 813, for USD 1.935 million (auction estimate USD 2-3 million).
Image 8. Gilt Bronze Seated Figure of Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, Dali Kingdom (938-1253).
Another outstanding figure from the Dali Kingdom is this rare depiction of a 'thousand armed' Avalokiteshvara. Only 24 hands can be depicted, but each one holds a unique sacred ritual instrument. This deity would have been situated on a tall lotus base. The casting and details is simply amazing!
Image 9. Gilt Bronze Seated Figure of the Guardian of the East, Dali Kingdom (938-1253).
This guardian was passed down from the Indian tradition and represents one of the four carinal directions. He is known as a fierce protector and is shown wearing full battle armour. The guardian is depicted seated on a demon which represents illusions in the material world.
Image 10. Gilt Bronze Seated Figure of Manjushri, Ming Dynasty, Yongle Period (1403-24).
And finally we have another depiction of Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom. Like image 7, this figure also holds a sword to cut through ignorance, but here, the deity is portrayed as a more mature figure, typical of Ming Dynasty examples. The top of the base is inscribed with the phrase 大明永樂年施 (daming Yongle nian shi) which translates to 'bestowed in the Yongle years of the great Ming'.
I hope you enjoyed this blog! Seriously, I don't think my photos did much justice for the actual figures, so when you do make it to NYC, it would be a much different experience to see these early Chinese Buddhist gilt bronze sculptures in person.
For some further reading, here are some wonderful books that provide an excellent synopsis on Chinese Buddhist sculptures from museum collections.
1.Denise Patry Leidy and Donna Strahan. Wisdom Embodied: Chinese Buddhist and Daoist Scuplture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York and New Haven: The Metropolitan Museum and Yale University Press, 2010.
2. Hugo Munsterberg. Chinese Buddhist Bronzes. Rutland, Vermont and Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1967.