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2. Head of a Guardian
China, Tang dynasty (618 - 907)
height 56 cm
Head of a Guardian

From both Buddhist and Hindu perspectives the term ‘guardian’ can be applied to a broad range of tutelary or protective figures. Initially four in number, guardians (pala) were known as Lokapalas or Digpalas and referred to collectively as the ‘Four Great Heavenly Kings’ (Catur Maharaja). Each is associated with one of the cardinal directions: Vaishravana rules over the North, Virudhaka the South, Dhrtarashtra the East, and Virupaksha the West. Like his Hindu counterpart, Kubera, Vaishravana, who is also called Jambhala, became a popular Buddhist deity. He is also the leader of the Yakshas, spirits of the underworld who protect the natural treasures hidden beneath the ground – which led to some Yakshas becoming specific local protectors themselves.

In Vajrayana Buddhism the group was enlarged by the inclusion of eight Dharmapalas, protectors of the dharma, the Buddhist Law. It’s among these deities that we find Yama, Mahakala, Vajrapani, Hayagriva, Lhamo and their peers. In Central Asia, China, Korea and Japan they are depicted as wrathful fgures, clad in armour and wearing ferocious expressions. Huge statues of Dharmapalas were posted in pairs at the temple gate, one on either side. Not surprisingly they were a favourite subject for artists, who could give full rein to conveying ferocity, anger, terror and fearsomeness in facial feature and bodily posture.

This hugely impressive, over-life-sized head of a Guardian is carved in heavy limestone. The complete figure must have been colossal, as indeed it should be to fulfil its protective purpose. A superb example of a Chinese Tang dynasty guardian, it is called Tianwang or ‘Heavenly King’. The baleful bulging eyes, bunched cheeks and jutting chin, the bared teeth in the seemingly screaming open mouth, the frowning eyebrows whose inner ends curl into volutes, and the deep furrow on the forehead, all executed with masterly precision, give this embodiment of superhuman protection against evil and demons an appropriately minatory appearance. Yet the patina on the hard limestone, gained over more than a thousand years, gives the head a warm lustre. Other than the blade-like diadem around the chignon, this guardian’s head has no attributes that could identify him. But comparable heads still in situ, such as those on the north wall of the Fengxiansidong cave at Longmen in Henan Province, give a clear idea of the power images of this kind can convey. The faces of the wooden guardian figures in ancient Japanese temples like the Horyuji in Nara are equally dramatically articulated.

This Tang masterpiece stems from the collection of the French missionary and explorer Evariste Regis Huc (1813-1860), who became known for this travels through Mongolia in 1844-1846. Arthur Huc (1854-1932), editor, political journalist and art critic, inherited and enlarged the collection, which was then systematically inventoried and documented by his wife and children. The head was sold by the last owner in the family, Jean-Jacques Theron (1947-), to an Austrian collector in 2015.

Collection Abbot E. R. Huc (1813-1860), acquired in the 1840s during his travels through Mongolia.
Collection Family Huc-Theron, France, 1860-2015.
Private collection, Austria, 2015-2017.

Longmen Caves, Miho Museum, Japan, 2001, Introduction and pp. 52, 53 & 76.
J. Van Alphen, De Boeddha in de Drakenpoort, Boeddhistische sculptuur uit de grotten van Longmen, China 5de - 9de eeuw, Etnografsch Museum, Antwerpen, 2001, pp. 127 & 128.

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all text, images © Marcel Nies
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