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Marcel Nies

5. Avalokit'svara
Cambodia; Bayon
circa 1200 A.D.
Bronze, cast in the lost wax method, traces of gilding
height 28.2 cm.


The small seated Buddha image set at the base of the high chignon identifies the deity as being that of the Bodhisattva Avalokit'svara, the lord of infinite compassion. The small Buddha image refers to this popular god to be an emanation of Amithaba, the oldest of the five cosmic Buddhas, who symbolises the stream of life and represents the summer. After the Bodhisattva's attainment of enlightenment, he wanted to guide mankind to the path of Buddha, leading to perfection.

Avalokit'svara is depicted in a frontal standing symmetrical posture on a rectangular base. In his hands he holds four attributes; in his raised right hand a mala (rosary), in his lower right hand a padma (lotusbud), in his lower left hand a kalasa (vase containing amrita, the elixir of immortality), and in his raised left hand, a pustaka (book, symbol of wisdom). The sign of illumination (urna) is depicted on the gods forehead. The deity is adorned with a crown, earrings, an elaborate necklace, bracelets, armlets, anklets and ornaments. The rich and complex arrangement of the pleated sampot has an engraved design, is wrapped around the body and adheres tightly at the god's waist with part of the cloth folded between the legs. The belt is decorated with finely outlined jewellery and strands of pearls.

The great king Jayarvarman VII (1181-1219 A.D.) ascended the throne of Angkor after the capital was plundered by the Chams of Vietnam and set out to restore the glory of the Khmer empire, commissioning innumerable Buddhist images to be set up in sanctuaries throughout the empire. His reign marked the final outburst of Khmer artistic genius. Since the king identified himself not only with the Buddha but also with Avalokit'svara, the cult of the latter became more popular than at any time in Khmer history. This sculpture clearly displays the peculiar characteristics of the Bayon style; the head has a typical large chignon with divided hair patterns, the legs are powerful and heavy with well marked knee caps, and the other shapes of the body are depicted with full and rounded volumes, the navel being depicted in a pronounced manner. The style of the jewellery and in particular the finely executed sampot are in addition typical characteristics of the period.

The subtle and superbly voluptuous modelling of the bronze reveals fine physical particularities including a concentration of restrained energy and a gentle lively expression on the face. The high artistic quality of the bronze is in addition complemented by the tension of the god's frontal upright position and the beautiful patina with traces of gilt and malachite. The fine casting with articulated features, the impressive size, and the traces of original gilding underline the importance of this Khmer temple bronze. The convincing manner in the way Avalokit'svara appears make this lord of compassion a majestic example of the classical Khmer-Bayon period.

Provenance: Private collection U.S.A.

all text, images © Marcel Nies
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