17th – 18th century
H. 23 cm or 9 ⅛ in
With his right hand, the lama makes the gesture of discussion (vitarkamudrā), his left resting in his lap. Many ecclesiastics are depicted in this way, most being identified by an attribute held in their left hand, usually the book of their writings or an alms bowl. It would seem that it is not the case with this statuette. Its perfect gilding shows no trace of any element having been removed. Moreover, the fingers of the hand seem to be making a characteristic movement. The high hat with the long flaps enables us to presume that our monk belongs to the dGe-lugs-pa order.
In the Aṣṭasāhasrikā pantheon (Chandra, 1991), several lamas have the same iconography as this statuette. Most of them are making the same discreet motion with the fingers of their left hand (p. 437, No. 1227, Tshul-khrims-‘bar; p. 443, No. 1251, Chos-kyi-rgyal-mtshan; p. 482, No. 1409, Yongs-‘dzin bLo-bzangs bstan-‘dzin, p. 501, No. 1483, Na-bza’ Brag-phug-pa; and (p. 502, No. 1492, bsLab-gsum-rgyal-mtshan).
The character is seated on two superposed cushions, indicating he holds an important position in the community.
The work has great sculptural qualities. The stylized face, with accentuated ethnic features, could be an actual portrait. In certain places, the draped fabrics show sharp folds. In the back, the folds of the cloak are handled with unusual and highly remarkable vigor. This particularly powerful treatment does not preclude careful decoration. The collar of the monastic robe and the cloak are trimmed with Chinese textile braiding decorated with delicately engraved motifs, as are the cushions of the seat.
Depictions of holy men are considered to be “relics of the body” just the same as are organic remains. The fervor they cause and even their mere presence are cause for merit. They should be viewed differently from “relics of the heart”, which include their personal objects, often ritual ones, and “relics of the mind”, the sum of their spiritual teachings and their writings. The multiplication of lamas incarnates (sPrul-sku) in the 18th and 19th centuries caused a multiplication of portraits of lamas and of their spiritual line recomposed a posteriori. Among this immense production, the present portrait stands out by its sculptural quality and the clearly Sino-Mongol features.
Through a perfect balance between Tibetan traditions and the motifs of Chinese origin, the statuette is a perfect example of the Tibetan art of the last few centuries.
Provenance: Christie’s, London, 8 November 2016, P. 168, No. 147.
- Chandra, Lokesh, Buddhist Iconography (compact Edition). New Deihi : International Academy of Indian Culture-Aditya Prakashan, 1991.