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.|
|Bodhisattva found in the Qingzhou horde, Limestone, Height: 136cm.|
China, Northern Qi Dynasty, 550 - 577 A.D.
|Detail showing the head of the Qingzhou Bodhisattva|
|Bodhisattva, Limestone, Height: 25 inches.|
China, Northern Qi Dynasty 550 - 577 A.D.
|Head of the Bodhisattva above.|
|Another view of the head of the Bodhisattva|
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.