1. Hindu god Vishnu
Copper with traces of gilt
Ht: 17.4 cm
In his four hands, the god holds his usual attributes: the sriphala, fruit of the bilva tree, the wheel, the mace and the conchshell. Such a classic iconography is frequent in Nepal, where the god is venerated as Narayana. The order of his attributes may vary however. This particularity bears witness to the importance of the vaiṣṇava sect of the Pāṅcarātra in that country. These religious people consider Vishnu as a major divinity. While the supreme form (para) of the divinity remains inaccessible, these hypostases (Vyūha, literally meaning “expansion”) have a fervent cult following. Twenty of them are considered to be secondary, but four principal ones (Caturvyūha), for the four cardinal points, are venerated as principals. Most of the time, these four Vyūha are represented with four arms, holding the usual attributes of the god (Suisser, 1982, Vol. 2, Fig. 385) in the place determined by canon, but their order may vary from one form to another (Siusser, 1982, Vol. 2, Fig. 386). From that perspective, the statuette discussed here could be identified as being Narayana Hiti Caturvyūha.
Especially numerous in Nepal, the Pāṅcarātra are distinguishable from the Bhāgavata, who emphasize the redeeming action of the god Vishnu’s avatars.
There are many statuettes of Vishnu in Nepal. In his 1981 compendium, Ulrich von Schroeder reproduces two Viṣṇu stylistically very similar to the one here. One is at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Schroeder, 1981, p. 349, Fig. 90 E); the other, with eight arms, is in a private collection (id., Fig. 90 D). As with the piece discussed here, the divinities have strong pectoral muscles and a narrow waist that is in contrast with wide hips. A Brahmanic cord and belt drape down to his knees in a perfect semicircle. The folds of his clothing flow down to his legs symmetrically on both sides. Small, stylized floral ornaments vertical to the base stand out from the surface, making these elements appear more solid.
The central flower-shaped ornament of the diadem has a deep circular ornament but of a different design.
As with many pieces from the 14th century, fine inlaid jewels bestow the statuettes with a particularly precious, refined appearance. On “our” Vishnu, very deep but empty cabochons were once probably beautified in a similar fashion.
Provenance: Private European collection, acquired in the 1970s-1980s. Sotheby’s, New York, 21 March 2012, Lot 301. Private Californian collection.
· Slusser, Mary Shepherd, Nepal Mandala. A Cultural Study of the Kathmandu Valley.
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982 (2 vol).
· Shroeder, Ulrich von, Indo-Tibetan Bronzes. Hong Kong: Viual Dharma Publications, 1981.
Detail: alternate view