Saturday, November 23, 2013

A Crowned Bodhisattva Head and its type.

I recently acquired the exceptional Chinese Northern Qi head of a Crowned Bodhisattva, seen in the images below.  It is large, just over life sized, intact as far as the head itself goes, with only a bit of the top of the crown missing and the side ribbons. In addition to being relatively intact the surfaces are very well preserved with extensive remains of the gold leaf preserved along with polychromy.  The lips preserve their original carmine red, and bits of color remain on the crown.  It is a magnificent head, really majestic.  However the reason the head is compelling to me is that it is of a type known from other versions, which is a rarity in Chinese Buddhist sculptures of this time.  While all are similar, no two are the same in their details, except for this particular type.

Head of a Bodhisattva, Limestone, Height: 15 inches

Head of a Bodhisattva wearing a crown.
China, Northern Qi Dynasty, 550 - 577 A.D.

Side view of Head of a Bodhisattva, Limestone, Height: 15 inches.
In my studies of Chinese Buddhist sculpture, one is confronted repeatedly with this (see below) spectacular Bodhisattva wearing a crown, with a small Buddha centrally placed.  This indicates it is Kuanyin, the Bodhisattva of compassion.  Singularly superb in its carving, conception and execution, it stands apart from the group of extraordinary sculptures discovered in Qingzhou in 1996, and subsequently made famous by a traveling exhibition and catalogue, "The Return of the Buddha", in 2002.  It was featured in one of the first publications of the find in 2001 on the cover of the magazine, Arts of Asia, Volume 31, number 1. 

Bodhisattva found in the Qingzhou horde, Limestone, Height: 136cm.
 Standing Bodhisattva
China, Northern Qi Dynasty, 550 - 577 A.D.

Detail showing the head of the Qingzhou Bodhisattva

The beautiful Bodhisattva above (photos taken from the Asian Newspapers online article is one of the most famous of the sculptures found in the horde.  And justly so as you can see in the photos above.  However, as remarkable as it is in itself, evidently either it, or a lost original, inspired copies to be made of it, something I have not seen before in Chinese Buddhist sculpture.  The first time I encountered one, it was a smaller version, that duplicates the details of the jewelry, robes and crown exactly, but the face is quite different. (see below)

Bodhisattva, Limestone, Height: 25 inches.
Standing Bodhisattva
China, Northern Qi Dynasty 550 - 577 A.D.

Head of the Bodhisattva above.
Another view of the head of the Bodhisattva
As you can see above, the smaller version of the Bodhisattva type copies exactly, as far as I can tell, the jewelry, robes and crown of the Qingzhou sculpture.  I bought the smaller one without realizing just how close it was to it, but recognizing that it belonged to that type of adorned Bodhisattva.  I was startled when I was studying photos of the Qingzhou sculpture to see just how closely the one I had followed it.  And yet the faces are quite different, indicating that they are not by the same sculptor, and perhaps even separated in time.  The question is, was the Qingzhou Bodhisattva famous and admired in its own time, or was there yet another example that it is another copy of.  That is something we may never know. 

The head I just acquired indicates that there was yet at least one more version, the one the head came from, which would have been just over life sized, and a very impressive sculpture.  Interestingly, the crown, which is almost identical to the Qingzhou example, is not exactly so.  On either side of the central seated small Buddha on the Qingzhou sculpture, is a stylized lotus leaf seen from the side, however in the newly acquired head, the Buddha is framed by a jewel, with a spray of pearls on either side, the rest of the crown almost exactly parallels the Qingzhou type.  The face is much more related to the Qingzhou type, a bit bigger and less attenuated, unlike the small version where it is totally different.  The lips in particular has almost the same cupid bow upper lip that the Qingzhou one does.  In addition the expressions are very similar, very removed and distant in deep meditation.  The smaller one just has a different feel to its face, even though it too is in deep meditation.

The whole field of early Chinese Buddhist sculpture is still only beginning to be processed by scholars, since before the Qingzhou horde, very few examples survived, now many examples have come to light, reached the market, but are still relatively unknown to them.  I wonder how many other "types" we will find, where there are multiple examples so similar to each other as the three above. 

A little bit about Bodhisattvas.  The Buddha attained enlightenment and nirvana, leaving the earthly realm merging into the universal essence.  In early Chinese Buddhist sculpture, the Buddha is distinguished by the lack or jewelry and adornment, in the simple robes of a monk.  It is his pure presence that demands your attention, while Bodhisattvas are richly clothed and adorned often with heavy extravagant jewelry.  The Qingzhou example is a particulary richly decorated one.  A Bodhisattva is a being who has attained enlightenment, but has chosen not to go to Nirvana, but to stay behind to help other sentient beings achieve enlightenment.  One story about Kuanyin is that on the brink of Nirvana, he heard the distressed voices of all creation, and in compassion, turned around to stay behind to help other beings on the road to spiritual perfection. Perhaps as recompense for not going to Nirvana, Bodhisattvas are depicted adorned in kingly jewelry and robes.  The richness of their garb may also symbolize their spiritual wealth, which is limitless.  Almost all Bodhisattvas are crowned, but the Qingzhou type has a distinctive crown, so I am referring to them as a crowned Bodhisattva.  The central small seated Buddha in the crown is an attribute of Kuanyin, so it may well be the type is meant to depict him.  In Indian sculpture, which was the source for Buddhism, Bodhisattvas are richly adorned, with jewelry.  But the Chinese examples are often far more richly adorned then the Indian ones.  The type above is one of the most beautiful in early Chinese Buddhist sculpture, I'm lucky to have found this beautiful head of one.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Another Poniatowski gem rediscovered

It has been a while since I last posted to my blog.  So here I will catch up with a few new posts, on more Poniatowski gems that I have purchased, starting with this beauty, which was lost, and now is found.
Engraved Carnelian in gold swivel setting.
Above is the gem, and engraved carnelian agate, here shown with the light going through it, allowing one to see the masterful engraving, an three dimensional image done in reverse, intaglio.  What we see is a young serious woman, hair drawn back into a simple bun, indication of robes at the bottom of her neck, and a large inscription along the left side, reading "POLLA ARGENTARIA".

Here you see the gem in its setting, in reflected light.

Above is the gem seen in its setting, with the light reflecting off the surface.  What isn't evident from this image is that the surface shows some minor wear with some small scratches.  This becomes important in its identification.

The research of this gem took several stages.  Its first rate quality indicated to me that I may well find it somewhere, and be able to identify its engraver even.  First I went to Lippold's Gemmen und Kameend des Altertums et der Neuzeit, published in 1922.  One reason it is such a great resource is to be found it its title, Gems and Cameos from Antiquity to the New Age, roughly translated, the literal German is more poetic, referring to antiquity as the High Period, i.e., superior, with which I would agree.  Lippold illustrates hundreds of the more admired gems both from the ancient periods to modern gems, as collectors in the 19th Century collected and were interested in the best of both times.  In Lippold I found the nearly identical female bust, which is signed by L. (Luigi) Pichler, one of the greatest gem engravers from the late 18th into the early 19th Century.

From Lippold, the Pichler gem.
The images on these two gems are nearly identical, with minor differences in the drapery at the bottom of the neck and the profile, but seem to be by the same hand they are so close.

The next phase of my research was to google the name engraved on the gem, Polla Argentaria, who turns out was the wife of Lucan, the well known poet who lived during the Julio Claudian period and had the patronage of Nero, and as typical in this period, lost favor, was discovered to have subsequently plotted against the emperor and was force to commit suicide, which he did by opening a vein and as he bled to death, he recited poetry.  He was only 25, and had accomplished a lot in his short life.  Nothing is known about Polla Argentaria but that she was his wife, then widow.  No ancient depictions of her exist, or are known.

Then of course my mind wandered to the Poniatowski gems, as there are many gems of famous Romans, which because there are no ancient representations of subjects, are identified, sometimes with cryptic initials, by rather large inscriptions. The inscriptions on the known and illustrated portrait gems in the Poniatowski collection matched the style of the inscription on mine.  Looking up Polla Argentaria in the Beazley Archives Poniatowski gem section, I found that indeed, there was a gem depicting her in the collection, but it had no impression, no illustration of what it looked like.  But, given the very quality of this gem, the slightly roughed up surface, matching the other gems in the collection, the style of the inscription and that it depicts an obscure but literary figure in Roman history, I thought, you know what, this may the be the lost gem cataloged.  I sent images to Clauda Wagner, who is managing the Beazley Archives database and is perhaps the person who knows the most about the Poniatowski collection, and she confirmed that yes, it is the Poniatowski gem on the website, which until I made the connection, had been lost to scholarship. 

This gem is the 5th re-discovery I've made of gems listed as lost on the Beazley Archives, 2 from the Marlborough collection and now 3 Poniatowski gems.  I intend to keep looking, and hopefully I will make more rescues of lost gems from these great collections.