Collection of Ulrich von Schroeder
Acquired in London, 1995
22,000,000 28,000,000 港元
Essay by Jan Van Alphen, July 2016
Over a meter tall, this monumental figure of Canda Vajrapani (lit. 'Fierce Vajrapani') is without doubt one of the great masterpieces of 13th-century Tibetan sculpture, and the most important surviving Tibetan brass sculpture of any period. In quality and scale, it ranks among some of the most iconic and famous early Himalayan sculptures, such as the 'Zimmerman Buddha' now held in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (acc. #2012.458), and the 'Rockefeller Gilgit Shrine of Crowned Buddha' at Asia Society, New York (acc. #1979.044).
There is only one large metal sculpture of Vajrapani to compare in Tibet, currently in the custody of Shalu monastery and found on the ground floor of the Serkhang (or 'Golden Temple'). However, it does not withstand comparison, as the Serkhang Vajrapani is quite smaller (84cm, figure), of lesser sculptural quality, and much damaged. Rather, in detail and overall effect, the von Schroeder Vajrapani reflects the highest artistic standards of Tibetan metal sculpture.
Achieving such a large work in cast metal requires great skill and experience, especially at the high altitude of the Tibetan plateau, where casting becomes more volatile. To compensate for these conditions, monumental sculptures were typically cast in separate parts and assembled afterwards. This technique is most noticeable on the von Schroeder Vajrapani's reverse, where the original copper rivets can be seen along the crease of his backside. However from the front, the joints of the arms, legs, and neck are hidden, and the sculpture appears as a seamless single casting, a testament to sculptor(s) expertise.
Another remarkable feature is the sculpture's copper inlay, forming the central band of his diadem and the torque around his neck. Perhaps most alluring though is the thick and glossy application to the nails of its fingers and toes. The inclusion of copper inlay frequently distinguishes superior Himalayan bronzes from those of lesser quality, but there are few large-scale examples from 13th-century Tibet to compare to. Meanwhile, it is easier to trace the technique's origin in the sculptural traditions of Kashmir and Eastern India that bore influence on Tibet, as epitomized in a magnificent 11th-century Western Tibetan sculpture of Manjushri in the Jokhang, Lhasa. Of similar size to the von Schroeder Vajrapani, general similarities can be drawn between the first inlaid band of his lower garment, engraved with chevrons, and his inlaid finger- and toenails.
But while few direct comparisons with large metal sculpture from the same period can be made, drawing on depictions in other mediums locate the von Schroeder Vajrapani within the 13th century. Numerous extant paintings have allowed scholars to frame a stylistic chronology around keystone pieces dated by inscription or historical sources. A 13th-century painting of Vajrapani within a folio from a Prajnaparamita manuscript held by the Rubin Museum of Art depicts his hair arranged in the same manner, as a single curved bun with tresses unfurling on his shoulders (Linrothe & Watt, Demonic Divine, New York, 2004, pp.224-5, no.54: detail). His bulging eyes and orange facial hair are also conceived similarly to the von Schroeder Vajrapani, as are his burgeoning thighs and the fleshy fold below his pectorals. These characteristics are also present in a depiction of Vajrapani within a 13th-century thangka of Shakyamuni. It also matches the particular treatment of the von Schroeder Vajrapani's thin flame-like beard, and three-leaf crown terminating either side with small flowers (Kossak & Casey Singer, Sacred Visions, New York, 1994, pp.87-8, no. 16: detail).
The von Schroeder Vajrapani is the most spectacular metal sculpture of one of Buddhism's primary protector deities. Each cast component seems stretched to its full capacity to emphasize his overwhelming build and power. Greater than what we see in these two painted examples, its massive proportions compare to an important large stone stele of Vajrapani carved at Feilaifeng in Hangzhou between 1281-1292, during the Yuan dynasty. However, the stylistic restraint shown in the von Schroeder Vajrapani's jewelry and its relatively sparse placement leaves the viewer to focus on his immensity in a way that the ornate trappings of the Feilaifeng Vajrapani distract from. This simplicity of adornment allowing more emphasis for spirit and vitality constitutes a core characteristic of early Tibetan sculpture that has made it so prized among connoisseurs of Himalayan art.
The origins of Vajrapani (lit. 'holder of the thunderbolt') can be traced back to the far reaches of human civilization, evolving from the Indian Vedic deity Indra, first mentioned in ancient hymns dating approximately between 1700-1100 BCE. Indra is the King of Heaven and the bringer of rains, the main life source in India, brandishing the thunderbolt during storms. As Buddhism spread and competed with other religions, it absorbed key pre-existing deities to invite broader congregations. Indra was incorporated into the Buddhist pantheon in the first centuries CE as a bodhisattva, an attendant of Buddha. As Monika Zin has shown, Vajrapani appears in Indian art around the late 2nd century, frequently accompanying Buddha in narrative scenes of conversion, particularly involving violent or stubborn individuals, such as the raging elephant Dhanapala and the heretic Nanda (Zin, "Vajrapani in the Narrative Reliefs", in Migration, Trade and Peoples, Part 2: Gadharan Art, London, 2005, pp.73-83). In later Gandharan and Gupta sculptures of the 4th-6th centuries, he frequently appears on the left side of Buddha in a triad with Avalokiteshvara. While still recognizable by the vajra he wields, this overhaul of Indra's appearance and purpose proved an effective way for early Buddhism to appeal to and incorporate devotees who revered the Vedic deity.
However, by the 13th century, Vajrapani's role and appearance was reshaped by tantric thought emerging between the 6th-12th centuries in a process described in great detail by Rob Linrothe (Ruthless Compassion, London, 1999). He is transformed from a yaksha spirit-attendant into a prominent protector deity in his own right, safeguarding Buddhism's teachings and community in his popular 'fierce', 'wrathful', or 'impassioned' form (skt. Canda/Krodha). He wields Indra's thunderbolt, now a 'diamond scepter' having the capacity of piercing and penetrating almost all materials and mindsets. He represents the combined power of all the Buddhas and acts as the remover of both internal and external obstacles to Buddhism and its practitioners. One must remember that in the Vajrayana context wrathful imagery is not meant to represent anything malign or demonic, but to express the invincible power of compassion.
His large belly, bulging limbs, and disproportionally large head, convey a dwarfish appearance that betrays Vajrapani's ancestry as a yaksha in Indian Buddhism. In the Sadhanamala, an important Vajrayana treatise on iconography composed between the 5th and 11th centuries, Vajapani is referred to as a yaksha general. With his left leg fully cocked, he leans on his right knee in 'warrior pose' (pratyalidha), while brandishing the thunderbolt like a deadly weapon above the devotee, and displaying the gesture of exorcism with his left hand (karana mudra). Heightened by the contrast between the applied orange and cold gold paint, his expression bears such ferocity that there is never any doubt he would subdue whatever threatened the practitioner. His bulging eyes stare intently while he confidently grimaces, baring sharp fangs at the corners of his mouth. His facial hair and chignon with orange pigment evoke flames, alluding to fire's symbolic power to consume and transform, like Vajrapani's capacity to purify negative ailments obstructing the practitioner.
Vajrapani's origins are also alluded to here in the eight docile snakes wrapped around the sculpture's chignon, armlets, bracelets, anklets, belt, and sacred cord. In the Indian and Himalayan cultural context, snakes, known as naga, are closely associated with winding rivers, monsoons, and water. Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism incorporated the snake as a semi-divine being, sometimes using it as a pictorial device to form a protective seat and hood for the principal deity, as seen in episodes of Buddha, Vishnu, and Parshvanatha. Subdued around his body, the snakes also represent Vajrapani's ability to quell harmful forces and poisonous emotions. The von Schroeder Vajrapani also wears a lower garment of a tiger skin, which reaches far into his Indian origins, associated with adharmic and fierce representations of the Hindu god Shiva. The tiger's face, appearing above his right knee, is one of the most impressive examples of Tibetan engraving.
This spectacular depiction of Vajrapani is one of the most daring Tibetan metal sculptures ever made. In its original ritual context, it would have likely featured on an altar of a primary monastery, probably within close vicinity of a large figure of Buddha. It would have been venerated daily, given ablutions and washed with purifying liquids, contributing to the beautiful smooth and glossy surface it has survived with. From the reverse, we can see a large copper plate, which would have been added at the final stage of its creation, after the placement of charged sacrificial gifts inside its hollow core and its ritual enlivening.
此文章之中文版本收錄於限量版圖錄《Masterpieces of Himalayan Art from the Collection of Ulrich von Schroeder》
1.04 m (3 ft. 4 in.) high