Figure of Usnisha VijayaCast copper alloy(bronze?) with gilding, pigment and inlaid with semi-precious stonesCentimetres: 41.2 (height), 31.7 (width)18th century ADArea of Origin: TibetSir Christopher Ondaatje South Asian GalleryThe George Crofts Collection918.39.4.ADescription
Ushnisha-vijaya is a peaceful white deity and an emanation of Vairochana Buddha, whose transcendent wisdom reveals the realm of highest reality. In her hands she holds a double vajra, representing the male aspect of compassion. The shape of the vajra – two identical ends bound by an unbreakable core – reflects the diamond-hard nature of the Buddha’s mind. She is known as the long-life deity.
This deity is very important in the Buddhist religion. Originally, the sutra was a translation from Sanksrit to the Chinese language and this was widely circulated in that country especially during the Tang Dynasty. There are other figures of the deity which have appeared in the past but they are principally in paintings and inscriptions, in fact none is as clear as this sculpture.
The cast-iron material lends itself to good expressionism, especially in the way the deity is portrayed.
DiscussionUshnisha-vijaya is a “white” deity, primarily focused on tranquility. She is an emanation of Vairochana Buddha, whose wisdom was known to have transcended even the highest realms of reality. She holds, in her hands, a double vajra, which represents the ‘male’ aspect of compassion and love for fellow beings. The shape of her vajra – two completely identical ends bound together by an unbreakable core – represents the hard, stagnant and present nature of the Buddha’s mind. She is known most commonly as the long-life deity.This piece, in terms of style, is immediately recognizable by most contemporary members of the western world. However, Ushnisha-vijaya’s significance is in no way held to the same standard across the cultural board. She, and other emanations of Buddha, are extremely sacred Tibetan religious representations, and hold extreme importance not only in Tibet, but all across Asia. However, in the Western world, images and likeness of Buddha and emanations of Tibetan deities are used, most often, as decoration. Many who use these images are minutely, if at all, aware of the deep cultural significance that these statues hold. One might see Buddha in a North American “Asian-style” restaurant, in a spa, in retail shopping environments, or even in the home. While these statues are, in some ways, created in order to promote peace and tranquillity, having them in one’s home without knowledge of the cultural significance is akin to having a Mezuzah on the door of your home simply for the ornamental value. Susan Sontag states in her 1964 work “Against Interpretation”, that “Interpretation, based on the highly dubious theory that a work of art is composed of items of content, violates art. It makes art into an article for use, for arrangement into a mental scheme of categories.” This statement easily holds true for almost all-contemporary art, and many historical works as well. Art, created for the sake of creation, immediately loses some of its creative value when one is forced to fabricate a personal interpretation of it. Interpretation can solely be done as an individual, and while it is possible to compare, contrast, and wholeheartedly agree with interpretations created by others, one must, through agreement with a separate interpretation or not, come to an interpretation of the work on their own. However, in the case of the Ushnisha-vijaya cast copper alloy statue, interpretation is vital in order to understand and respect the meaning behind the creation and presentation of the work. Firstly, because of the time period of the works creation, it is safe to assume that the work was created primarily for religious worship. The use of bronze, copper and semi-precious stones, indicates that the creator felt it important to portray Ushnisha-vijaya in a deity-like, almost fantastical manner.
This statue is comparable to the bodhisvatta concept which we find in Eastern Buddhism.
The Buddhist Deity Simhavaktra Dakini is probably one of the most famous sculptures dating from the Heian period and shows the art of sculpture of those times in full flow. The sculpture is an example of the forbidding nature of this God which had considerable spiritual and physical powers.
Simhavaktra Dakini is described as the guardian of Vajrayana Buddhism and has also been described as a female ‘sky walker’ who eventually guides and puts human beings along the right path or The Middle Way (Hirakawa p 55). Her face is usually grim and foreboding and is similar to that of a lion. Apparently this deity is a spirit which can remove those physical obstacles such as pride and self-centeredness. She is usually portrayed alone as found here and is usually in a dancing and graceful position with her right leg raised and her left leg crushing some demon or devil. However in this portrayal this deity is not present.
The figure is impressive in her nakedness and she is dressed only in her jewellery. According to research, she usually holds some form of implement such as a knife in her right hand and a bowl which is usually similar to a skull in her other hand but these are again missing, probably stolen in the past by looters.
There is no information on the artist who sculpted this deity since very little historical information is prevalent from the Qing Dynasty period. The sculpture is impressive in its detail with a form that shows an imposing wrathfulness as well as a certain sense of piety in that same wrath. According to the Buddhist faith, Dakini is part of the hugely respected Eight Guardians.
The sculptures are funerary art at their best. It was known that the emperor wished to take his army with him after his death and this meant that a large number of labourers and craftsman took over the task of creating these terracotta figures to populate the pits close to the mausoleum of the emperor.
Funerary art is a subtle way of linking the dead with the living and this comes across quite brilliantly in the depiction of the figures. The attention to detail is fantastic and incredible, from the army suits to the belts and the boots which come fantastically to life. This detail undoubtedly had a lot to do with the focus to recreate the military life that the emperor wanted to take with him to the grave. This type of homage to the dead is quite unique both for the sheer scale of the undertaking and for the astonishing accuracy of the lifelike replicas.
The scale of the sculpture is also impressive since she is quite huge and imposing in appearance at first glance. However for her size, she is quite well balanced although her posture is also rather strange. The sculpture also has considerable artistic prowess and was probably extremely difficult to create so many years must have passed before its completion. The Dakini’s face is also full of wrath but according to Buddhist lore, this wrath is being used as a force for good and not violence or destruction. The fiery and angry appearance was apparently important for Simhavaktra to overcome what were termed as features such as lust and ignorance.
Each aspect of the statue conveys important clues and meanings. The fiery and blazing hair are symbols of the fire of the deity’s wisdom while the human skin cover is a symbolic portrayal of the stripping away of the veil of illusion from the perception of man. She is also richly adorned in jewels which are also extremely symbolic and we find her adorned with bracelets, amulets and a necklace which actually are symbolic of the Five Buddhas which also preside over the directions of the universe. The jewels symbolize the four directions and the central axis with the negative components or human psychology thrown in for good measure – these are delusion, pride, hatred as well as jealousy. The imposing third eye on the deity’s forehead indicates that she is able to see past negativity, an imposing power.
An interesting comparison here would be with Senju Kannon’s work from Japan in the Heian period called the One Thousand Armed Bodhisattva of Compassion. Senju Kannon’s work is replete with several themes from the Heian period, especially the way the figure is constructed and how it reaches out to the world. There is a deep spiritual intimacy about the painting (Mason, p 85). The Heian period was also renowned for its rich cultural associations and was also an important period for Japanese culture and this work by Senju Kannon is representative of that.
Both the Buddhist deity and the Ushniya Vijaya bring about different yet converging aspects to the Buddhist religion. The former conveys fear but at the same time there is also redemption while the latter emphasises the values of hard work and pilgrimage. The styles of the work rely on the brownish red colour but techniques such as firing also show an advanced state of sculpture at the time. The figures have important social connotations since they demonstrate an obsession with the afterlife as well as the will to live a properly spiritual life in all aspects which is essentially the main element of Buddhism.
Although the figure is representative of peace, there are some elements in it that seem to portray war and conflict. There is also a sense of inner peace which is portrayed especially in the way with which the arms are spread out. Susan Sontag’s theory that the way a work of art is portrayed eventually violates its concept is very much proven here.
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