Shown in a half-seated posture, these two facing bodhisattvas embody a relaxed naturalism befitting their role in Buddhism. They are shown with one arm resting by their sides while the other is raised holding, in one case, a drinking, and in the other, a rosary. Wearing simple robes that drape curvaceously around their protuberant bellies, legs and shoulders, their heads are slightly tilted to face the raised arm. Around the neck they wear jewels. The bodhisattvas' hair is elaborately coifed in an upward sweeping hairdo at the crown of which sits a small figure of Amitabha Buddha. Each of the figures is seated on a circular lotus platform.
The development of Buddhist iconography is intimately connected with the developments of Buddhist doctrine. Prior to the growth of Mahayana Buddhism, the central subject of Buddhist art was Sakyamuni, the historical Buddha. The practice of Buddhism concentrated on the quest by the individual for enlightenment and therefore was a solitary endeavour. By the Tang dynasty, the development of Mahayana Buddhism had shifted the focus of Buddhism from the individual to the wider society. To seek the enlightenment of others as well as one's own became equally meritorious acts. The creation of Buddhist art that would aid others in their path to this goal was also meritorious as was the patronage of such art. The popularity of the bodhisattva image lay in his role to help others seek enlightenment. He has already achieved enlightenment but has foregone entry to Nirvana so that he might guide others to the Buddhist paradise. As such he provided an inspirational image for Buddhist worshippers to contemplate.
The most popular bodhisattva image in China is that of a valokitesvara which was already known from the 4th century AD. A valokitesvara was particularly effective when evoked in times or peril or sorrow. His relaxed posture, where he is often shown with one leg raised on the pedestal and the other pendant is particular to Chinese manifestations of the figure and gives him an approachable quality appropriate to his role.
These two charming bodhisattvas are almost identical to a large group of gilt bronze seated bodhisattvas in the Idemitsu Collection and may originally have been part of this group. Our figures show the same pleasing expressions and relaxed bodies as the Idemitsu examples. They are a charming tribute to some of the lesser-known figures of Chinese Buddhism.
New York Art Market, 1980s.