Wooden Sculpture of the Vairocana Buddha

SKU X.0707

15th Century AD to 17th Century AD


39″ (99.1cm) high x 32″ (81.3cm) wide





Gallery Location



This imposing Buddha dates from the dynamic period surrounding the second half then collapse of the M’ing Dynasty, and the rise of the Q’ing. This period spans the 15th to 17th centuries AD, and saw many of the most important developments in Chinese culture. The M’ing, founded in 1368 under the peasant emperor Hong Wu, was a militarily oriented socio-political entity much given to radical interpretations of Confucianism and with a very strong defensive ethos (the Great Wall dates to this period). However by the 17th century cracks had started to appear, young male heirs being manipulated as puppets by the ruling families, and the court became rotten with intrigue. To compound matters, the Manchurian Chinese cities were being attacked by local groups – dubbed the Manchus – who eventually invaded China and deposed the old regime. The last M’ing emperor, Chongzhen, hanged himself on Coal Hill overlooking the Forbidden City, bringing an end to his line and ushering in the Q’ing dynasty.

The Q’ing had been founded by Nurhaci in the early 17th century, and persisted until the collapse of imperial China in 1912 with the hapless Pu-Yi, the last emperor of China. Their isolationist policies, social control (all men required to shave their heads, wear queues, and wear Manchu rather than traditional Chinese dress) introspection and cultural conservatism was at odds with their liberality in certain social issues – such as forbidding the binding of women’s feet (later withdrawn due to social pressure from the populace). However, this cultural inflexibility – which grew as the emperors grew increasingly unaware of the world outside their palace walls, much less the country’s borders – was a difficult stance to maintain in the shadow of the European thalassocracies, and it may have been this which helped hasten the demise of the Imperial system.

The M’ing and the Q’ing dynasties were highly creative times, seeing the appearance of the first novels written in the vernacular, considerable development in the visual arts and outstanding craftsmanship in all fields. The present sculpture is a case in fact, and it is perhaps somewhat disarming to reflect that this peaceful figure dates from a period of such spectacular turmoil.

The Buddha represented is the Vairocana variant – that is, the divine universal aspect of Sakiamuni Buddha. He is seated in yogic posture, his legs folded in padnasanam (lotus position), the left hand resting flat on the knee (unusually) and the right hand raised in vitarka mudra (gesture of debate with the forefinger tip touching the thumb). The face has been beautifully carved into a mask of imperturbable serenity and reflection, framed by the long earlobes and the hair, which has been gathered into small, serrated spikes that cover the head like a helmet. The only part exposed is the supracranial eminence traditionally associated with Buddha’s wisdom and sagacity. The drapery is simple, and robustly carved. It comprises a tunic tied at the waist with a long flowing robe that hangs to the waist and is gathered to cover the legs. The chest is bare. The Buddha is otherwise unadorned, which is appropriate given his penchant for simplicity and purity, and at odds with the more decorated Bodhisattva sculptures. The impact of the piece is boosted by its large size (38” tall), which gives it a powerful and magisterial presence. This is a true sculptural gem that deserves pride of place in a serious collection, or in any context where its beauty can be fully appreciated.

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