Oriental Gem Co., London, January 20, 1972
John C. and Susan L. Huntington Collection, Columbus, Ohio
Susan L. Huntington, "The Agency of Images," The Oxford Handbook of Buddhist Practice, Oxford, 2022, p. 162. fig. 9.9
This rare gilt and polychrome lacquered clay sculpture shows the tathagata Ratnasambhava seated in dhyanasana with his hands displaying varada and dhyana mudras. He is wearing traditional monks robes with pleated undergarment cinched above his waist and outergarment draped over his left shoulder and finely stenciled in gold with stylized clouds and floral motifs. His expression is one of focused meditation. The blue-painted hair is surmounted by a spherical jewel (cintamani).
The sculpture is carried out in the style of the Qing imperial court, which flourished during a period of cultural interchange between China, Mongolia, and Tibet in the eighteenth century. In the pursuit of political support and legitimacy, the Qing dynasty propagated and heavily patronized Tibetan-style Buddhism. From the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries, Qing emperors took advantage of this devotion by lavishly patronizing Tibetan Buddhist activities in the capital of Beijing.
Although clay is not a well-known artistic medium in Tibetan art, it has always been an important sculptural material. Such sculptures were likely made with a core of straw wrapped around a wooden armature and applied with clay molding on the surface. An x-ray photograph of the statue reveals that the cavity within has been filled with rolled sutras, and a small votive tablet of Amitayus is attached to a pole representing the spine that runs through the center of the torso. The practice of making and depositing these relief sculptures, called tsa-tsa in Tibetan, has its roots in Indian Buddhist practice as is exemplified by the countless molded clay tablets found at Buddhist sites such as Nalanda in Northeastern India, as well as excavated from stupas.
Consecration of a statue is essential to its religious purpose. Through an elaborate ceremony, the statue is brought to life and imbued with the spiritual qualities of the deity it is representing. Compare the present figure with a gilt-lacquered figure of a Buddha sold at Christie’s, Hong Kong, March 22 and 23, 2018, no. 1041. Also compare the proportions and overall detailing on the present work with a large lacquered Medicine Buddha from the Gump collection sold at Christie’s, Hong Kong, May 29, 2019, no. 2707.