The imagery of Asian religious sculptural figures can be bewildering. Distinguishing Chinese from Korean and Japanese, Indian from Thai, can be a daunting challenge. In this "primer" I overview the most common figures and offer pointers about how to distinguish the sculpture of one Asian culture from another.
With sculpture, there is a hierarchy of value based upon material. Generally, the most common figures are those that are made of easy-to-work organic materials, usually wood. Wood figures can be painted or, more commonly, lacquered. Small, carved wooden figures were made in large numbers and are relatively common, while large, imposing wooden figures were most often made for important religious sites, and are therefore much scarcer, and thus usually more valuable.
Appraiser Lark Mason overviews the mystifying topic of Asian religious sculpture
Stone figures are similar to those in wood, but almost always created for large public buildings. Some were created as architectural embellishments, others as independent sculpture. Many were originally painted, but most have lost their pigments through exposure and often burial.
By far, the most desirable types of sculpture for collectors are those in metal, usually bronze. Bronze is created from an alloy of copper and tin with smaller amounts of other metals. Bronze is less brittle, more durable and melts at a lower temperature than iron; it oxidizes only superficially. While most bronze figures are undecorated, others are covered in colored lacquer, and the highest-quality figures are those that are gilded. A lacquered or gilded surface enhances the appearance, and reflects the special devotional aspects of the figure.
Gilding bronze can be accomplished by two processes. Mercury gilding is achieved by an amalgam of mercury mixed with gold, which is heated in a furnace where the mercury evaporates, leaving the gold on the surface. Once the gold has been annealed to the surface, it is polished, resulting in a resplendent shine. A less costly and less complicated process covers the bronze with thin sheets of gold under a transparent or burgundy lacquer surface.
In Asia, gilded bronze figures are found in the Himalayan cultures of India, Tibet, and Nepal; China, Japan, Thailand, Korea, and other Asian societies. Gilded bronze figures are the apogee of metal sculpture. Most figures have a devotional purpose and are either Hindu or Buddhistic and frequently incorporate elements from both sources. Images are often distinguished by their attributes, which are physical characteristics that represent an element of their personality, protective powers, or emotions. A vengeful figure will often have a grimacing expression; a benevolent figure, an expression of calm and quiet dignity. Protective figures will sometimes brandish swords or other weapons. In addition to the appearance, figures are often associated with legends, stories of great accomplishments that are represented by symbolic imagery that is meant to remind the viewer of the event.
Ritual hand gestures, called mudra, originated from dance, where positioning the hands and fingers in a specific manner would have an effect on the dancer and also convey meaning to the viewer. Many Asian bronze figures have the hands displaying a particular mudra. One of the most often seen is the abhaya mudra, formed by raising the right hand to shoulder height with the arm bent and palm facing forward with the fingers joined and pointing up, while the other arm is hanging down at the side of the figure. This mudra represents peace, protection and the dispelling of fear.
One of the helpful identifying characteristics of gilt bronze figures, in addition to the imagery of the figure, is the base upon which the figure stands. In Tibet and China, these bases are often embellished with borders of upright lotus leaves, and in many instances the base itself is in the shape of a lotus leaf. In Tibetan and other Himalayan cultures, it is also common to find the underside of the base with a thin metal cover, incised with a vajra or dorje symbol, and within this sealed base is often contained a paper inscribed with a prayer.
The most important and common figure depicts Buddha, a person who has reached an understanding of the world and universe in which we live, and who exists to lead others to the same state of understanding. Some figures depict the historical Buddha, a prince who lived in the 5th/6th century B.C.E., but others represent an idealized Buddha. Most figures of Buddha are seated with legs crossed on a raised base. Images of Buddha usually wear a double robe, often with an incised foliate decorated border and have long, pendulous ears and a cranial bump, called an ushnisha. The hair is tightly coiled and often has a raised bump above the eyes in the center of the forehead, called the urna, and the hands are raised in a mudra.
Although most figures of Buddha are sitting, in Thailand and other South Asian societies, figures of Buddha are often standing, reclining or walking, and unlike the figures of China, Japan, or the Himalayan cultures, the cranial bump is sometimes augmented by a spike or spire.
A bodhisattva is a person who has not yet attained enlightenment, but is on the path towards enlightenment. A bodhisattva can take many forms, and in Japan is called bosatsu. The most well-known bosatsu in Japan is Jizo, a monk, depicted most often with a shaven head and wearing a long robe. This figure is similar to but different from the Tibetan arhat, an enlightened disciple of the Buddha, called a luohan in China, who also frequently appears in the visage of a monk.
Guanyin and Avalokitesvara
One of the most important Buddhist figures represented in gilded bronze is that of Guanyin, the goddess of mercy or compassion. Called Kannon in Japan, or alternatively in China, as a male in the manifestation of the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, this figure is often standing and wearing long, gently draped robes. In both China and Japan, this figure usually is identified by the graceful appearance, heavy lidded eyes, long pendulous earlobes, and open-necked robe revealing a long beaded necklace. Seated versions in the posture of royal ease have one raised leg with the other draped over the base on which the figure is seated. Although most often represented as female in China, the figure was also represented as male or female in other Asian cultures. Frequently, Chinese versions of Guanyin are depicted with a small child or attendant.
Tara is another popular bronze figure found throughout Asian cultures, but not often in China. The consort of Avalokitesvara, this figure is a bodhisattva, and is found standing or sitting and usually is voluptuously modeled, wearing multiple long strands of beaded necklaces, a crown, and often with lotus flowers rising from each shoulder. There are many manifestations or characteristics of Tara, most of which are identified with the colors green or white.
Shiva and Parvati
Shiva, a Hindu deity, is identified by a third eye in the forehead. This figure usually appears in South Asian cultures where Hinduism and Buddhism mingled. Often in a regal stance, the figure of Shiva frequently wears a crown and holds a trident, emblematic of authority. His consort is Parvati, the divine mother goddess whose manifestations are represented by all other goddesses. When alongside Shiva, Parvati is usually depicted with two arms, when alone, often with four and standing beside or on a tiger or lion.
From the ancient beginnings of Buddhism in India and its spread by pilgrims throughout Asia, local spiritual beliefs, practices, and imagery were adopted and adapted by the different peoples along the way. Buddhism was layered on local Hindu, animist, or other beliefs, and a pantheon of deities, gods, goddesses, spirits, forces and manifestations of human emotions and experiences combined to create the imagery that is unique to each Asian culture. Understanding the interwoven texture of these cultures is the foundation for identifying any Asian sculptural work.