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INTRODUCTION: Introduction by Jan Van Alphen

Cast for Eternity
Marcel Nies

For centuries, metal has been a highly preferred material of Asian sculptors for the depiction of their gods. The selection of bronze sacred images in the exhibition Cast for Eternity represents an important reflection of the cultural heritage of India, Sri Lanka, the Himalayas, and China (via Tibet), countries and regions which have occupied their own significant places in the art history of the world for over 2000 years. The sensuality, spirituality and beauty of these images are emphasized by the highly technical development and skilful exploitation of bronze casting techniques. As if they have been created for eternity, the bronzes radiate a sense of immortality and reflect the fascination and mystery of the ancient cultures of Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism. These visual interpretations of celestial beings are dedicated to the transcendence of the human condition through stages that lead to spiritual enlightenment. Therefore they cannot only be regarded as works of art, even though they are now isolated from their original surroundings, the sacred shrines and temples where man can communicate with the divine.

A great number and variety of Indian texts have been written over a period of 2000 years. Though largely philosophical and religious, they contain numerous references to metal objects. With the various forms of religions spreading from India all over Asia, many of their metal casting techniques were also adopted by the cultures coming under these influences. These techniques set the standard for the making of temple sculpture. The observation of proportion and conformity during the creation of sacred images played a crucial role in the development and evolution of Asian bronze culture. Such observations were closely followed and were committed in writing to guide the artist-craftsman. Techniques similar to those of the Indian tradition were employed in the Himalayan regions, as can be seen by comparative examinations of the images. In spite of similar rules regarding proportion and iconography, the stylistic differences in the art of these various regions is apparent, since there was a different interpretation of style and modelling.


Bronze casting techniques fall into three categories, according to the periods in which they were introduced: open forms, closed forms and lost forms. The bronzes in this exhibition originate from India, China, Sri Lanka and the Himalayan regions and most of them were exclusively created by the lost form method (lost wax), a process of casting metal images that is known in the West as cire perdue. The shape of the object was initially sculpted in hard wax, often based on a clay core, and then covered with successive layers of clay, except for the mouth of the pouring channel, till a fairly thick and solid coat was obtained. Once the clay mould had dried, it was heated in an oven to allow the melted wax to drain away through vent holes. Molten metal was poured through channels into the cavity of the mould to take the place of the wax. After the metal was sufficiently cooled, the outer shell of clay was broken off to reveal the metal image. The inner clay core was often removed to accommodate consecrated materials. The main difference of the cire perdue technique and other casting methods was that each mould could only be used once, as it was ‘lost’ (broken) in the course of casting. It implies that each image was modelled and cast individually and was therefore a unique artefact.

The lost wax method of casting images in metal has a long history of tradition and growth. The earliest examples of images produced by this method have been unearthed in the excavations at Mohenjodaro and Harappa in the Indus Valley. Some of these early metal images which were produced nearly 5000 years ago, evoke wonder not only for their perfection of form but also as works of art of exquisite expression and elegance. Similar bronze techniques had parallel developments in various parts of the world, as early man observed that metal possessed certain unique properties. He discovered that it is hard in its natural state, ductile when heated, melts at a high temperature and solidifies when cooled. Different metals could be combined to form an alloy that was even harder than the parent metals.

A small number of the images illustrated in this catalogue (cat. nos. 40, 66 and 81) were made by a different technique, known as ‘repoussé’. The shaping of metal by hammering can be dated back to as early as the sixth century CE. It is a technique of embossing for which only soft and malleable metals such as gold, silver and copper are suitable. In China and the Himalayan regions it was used to produce large temple images and architectural decorations such as toranas. Repoussé objects are usually hammered out of sheets of copper and subsequently gilded. A number of religious images were made from different components, some elements, such as the face and hands, being cast and the rest being created by the repoussé technique. In a number of cases, particularly during the period of the Malla kingdom in Nepal, only the pedestals and thrones were made in this way and assembled with the cast image. This fine metal technique was used by Newar craftsmen for centuries, resulting in the depiction of superbly created religious images that reveal an unprecedented technical and aesthetic level.

The delicate and complex process of the lost wax method meant that the images were always executed by specialist artisans who should have achieved the necessary level of technical skills in relation to their individual ability and qualification. Another important factor is that the artist had to have a correct visualization of the deity to be created in order to gain a clear vision of the image’s shape. This explains why some craftsmen in the Himalayan regions would only create and cast at night, when the highest level of concentration and inspiration could be obtained. The iconographic knowledge would consist of the iconometry as well as the detailing of ornaments, headdresses, garments, attributes, pedestals, prabhas, etc., all according to their contemporary religious rules, taste and local traditions. The artists could also seek the advice of the priests who possessed the relevant iconographical knowledge and texts.

The beeswax employed in the modelling of the image was modified with admixtures of various kinds, including enrichment with sila, the resin of a certain tree, or other oily substances, to increase the flexibility of the wax. The admixtures would vary with the season of the year in order to have the necessary consistency of the wax. The tools that were used in the image-making process were of metal and horn. For the actual modelling of the image, the craftsmen applied heat to the wax, which was cut roughly into shape with a knife, then carefully and patiently modelled, down to the most precise and minute details. To prevent the tools sticking to the wax they were moistened at regular intervals, and to increase the malleability of the wax heat was carefully applied by means of a small lamp whenever required. In the hollow casting process, the thickness of the model had to be related to the type of alloy that was to be used: the softer the metal, the stronger and thicker must be the wax model.

In some complicated forms like the multiple armed and headed figures, different parts of the image were individually and separately modelled in wax, and then assembled into a single sculpture. Very large statues required not only separate modeling but separate casting too, as they were too large for the capacity of the furnace. They were only assembled after the finishing work had been carried out on the various bronze parts.

Once the wax model was completed, the preparatory steps for covering it with clay began. Wax pipes had to be attached for the funnelling of the molten metal as well as for the circulation of air inside the model. Hollow cast images had the problem of fixation of the core in relation to the mould. This was solved by ‘core nails’ that were hammered into the wax model. Once the wax was melted out of the mould, these nails were the only means by which the position of the core in relation to the mould was stabilized. Points of these nails can still be seen inside the images.

After the clay coatings had been applied and the casting mould had been dried, the image could be cast. The preheating of the mould was necessary to change the air-dried clay into fireproof terracotta which was strong enough to take the molten metal. It also slowed down the solidification of the poured metal, which had to remain liquid in order to fill every part of the mould. Large amounts of wood and coal were needed to reach the high temperature necessary for smelting—around 1100 degrees centigrade for copper.

After the removal of the clay mould, the core, and the circulation pipes, the metal cast image was ready for the finishing work. In some cases the artist had to correct casting errors and the next step was the polishing and engraving of the piece. In addition, according to local style and use, the bronze image would be gilded, painted and/or inlaid with metal or (precious) stones. The most common method of gilding was fire gilding and was applied with the help of mercury. An amalgam of powdered gold and mercury was brushed onto the object after its surface had been carefully cleaned. The coated image was then held over a fire and as soon as the temperature had reached 360 degrees centigrade it caused the mercury to evaporate, leaving the gold evenly coating the surface of the metal. The brilliance and quality of fire gilding depended upon the granulation of the gold powder that was used. Gilding with mercury is durable and could be successfully applied to most basic metal alloys.

Among Tibetan and Chinese Buddhists it has been the custom to paint the face and uncovered parts of the neck, hands, and feet belonging to a number of religious images with a ‘cold gold’ paint. The fragility of this gilding requires it to be renewed from time to time. The faces of other images often have a shiny surface acquired after centuries of ritual touching and sometimes have metal inlay. Eyes, lips and fingernails as well as some ornaments can be inlaid with silver or copper alloys, forming a fine contrast to the actual bronze alloy of the piece itself. Additional colour pigments can be traced in the headdress of many of the figures illustrated; the type of colour can be seen as an iconographic indicator. In Tibetan sacred images the hollow inner space was filled with consecrated materials, after which the piece was sealed. These materials might consist of prayer rolls, Buddhist sacred texts, small terracotta images, and even pieces of cloth, teeth, hair, or other personal elements connected to a historical individual, often a highly-ranked priest, and his relationship with the depicted figure (see cat. no. 56).

In south India metal temple images were invariably cast in solid metal to emphasize the immortality of the divinity portrayed—this in contrast to the Himalayan regions, where copper-gilt figures were in principle hollow cast. In larger bronze statues, a central core of a lighter material was often used when creating the figure in wax. This remained in the metal image in order to reduce the weight. Metal workers in northern India and large parts of Tibet generally used an alloy blended of eight metals, sometimes with a small percentage of silver and even gold. The bronze figures in south India and Nepal as well as some southern parts of Tibet were invariably cast with a high copper alloy containing some brass and white lead. The exact proportions varied according to the different periods and art schools. In later periods copper predominated in the amalgam.

The exhibition displays a group of bronzes originating from China, which are closely related to the Tibetan styles and iconography (cat. nos. 75-81). Of the outstanding bronze sculptures of the Yongle period (1403-1424) many bear the imperial inscriptions. They were produced in government workshops and are among the great examples of finely executed Asian bronzes. The bronze alloy and gilding used for the creation of such images are of a different and very consistent type, a fine metal mixture complemented with superb lively gilding. The identifying of technology and metal alloys, as well as stylistic analysis, play an important role in the classifying and dating of metal images.


The importance and function of Asian bronze statues is to serve as an aid in meditation. A practitioner will be able to understand the meaning and significance of such an image to the extent that his knowledge and his level of perception and meditation allows. During meditation the practitioner will perform mudras and repeat mantras and visualize a particular deity to bring about a meditative state in order to achieve a desired state of consciousness. It is one goal of the artist to create a sacred statue which should convey a meditation experience to a level that those who observe the statue can share in the same experience. These visual metal images are therefore internal experiences in meditation, as well as an attempt to guide others towards the same experiences.

Images cast in metal were considered to yield the greatest religious merits. The commissioning and donation of bronze statues to a monastery was considered an important meritorious act. A practitioner could gain spiritual merit by serving as the patron for the making and consecrating of religious images. This was considered of great importance for its influences in the matter of an individual’s birth, future, and attainment of enlightenment. Some statues were donated in the name of a loved one to acquire the merits for that person. In other cases the statue was commissioned in the hope that the patron would attain more worldly fortune. Bronze statues served as a focus for the expression of religious devotion, they served to instruct and confirm the experiences of advanced practitioners. Their iconographic forms were symbolic and represented philosophical ideas, and aspects of liturgical and meditational practices. Artists were bound by faith, tradition and religion, and needed to concentrate and form a mental picture of the god before fashioning the figure, which had to inspire a devotee to worship the deity. The sculptor was instructed to adhere rigidly to the canons laid down in the sacred texts. The religious rules, precise measurements, and artistic curves were indications leading to the creation of metal images in a natural pose with exquisite balance. It was ordained that in addition to being well proportioned the divine images should be also beautiful to look at. Among the various curves are samabhanga, which has no bends and is expressive of tranquillity and repose; abhanga, an elegant and delicate posture with the body weight resting on one leg and the other slightly bent; tribhanga, or ‘thrice-bent’, used for Taras and female bodhisattvas; and atibhanga, greatly bent, seen among images of Devi, dance poses of Shiva and Buddhist protector deities.

The stylized position of arms, hands and fingers also plays a very important part in giving the metal images an aesthetic excellence. Discussing these icons, the sculptor Auguste Rodin wrote: ‘The image of Nataraja can well contest for superiority in gracefulness with the gestures of Venus de Medici, who defends her charm by the arm, whilst Shiva does the same by an ingenious gesture’ (see cat. no. 6). The position of the fingers is such that each takes its own elegant place in space, and attributes are poised playfully between them. The gestures are significant with wonderful articulate symbolism, grace, and tenderness, which is entirely spiritual. Some of them have been adopted from dance gestures, while others have been evolved by the artists to serve the religious context. As revealed by the selection of sacred bronze images in this exhibition catalogue, these unique bronzes were originally created to achieve a spiritual effect, conveying a deeper meaning beyond the physical sculpture itself.

Most of the images in this exhibition were created for domestic shrines. A number of larger bronze statues and in particular south Indian images were also dedicated to temples for festival processions. Unlike many bronzes made in the north of India, these processional images were invariably modelled in the round so that they could be seen from all sides. The image was placed on a vahana, and often decked with flowers and ornaments. The circular holes made in the throne or the rings attached to the thrones would originally accommodate the rods necessary to keep the image in place on his vahana. (see cat. nos. 3-13). This kind of figure was often fully clothed and originally kept in a temple hall.


Although beauty was important it was not the artist’s first consideration when creating a sacred image in bronze. As these were produced for a religious purpose, the expressive effect of their iconographical meaning was considered to be more important. The image that was part of a temple interior was to convey to the beholder his religion as the highest goal. The aesthetic success was the result of an intensive religious devotion to the intention of creating a sacred image. To reveal the diversity of our being, a distinct number of forms of expression are necessary, forms that go beyond the physical sculptural appearance only. Many of the bronze images of Buddhas, bodhisattvas, lamas as well as devis and devas of the Hindu pantheon illustrated in this exhibition catalogue (cat. nos. 19, 24, 29-36, 39, 40, 43-50 52, 58, C, D and so on), express an inner happiness, for they have achieved the spiritual state of enlightenment, the highest level of evolutionary perfection. Their majestic appearance is rather of a focused form, as they are embodiments of wisdom and compassion. With subtle tensions, fine postures, pure lines and volumes, they reveal a sense of human nobility. These bronzes have serene expressions, as they are depicted in deep meditation and radiate a peace of mind; divine images with a meditative and introvert character. They form a strong contrast to the protector deities, who often are depicted with terrifying expressions, vigorous movements, and with more extrovert characters. Their task is to protect the religion and its institutions against adversaries such as demons, as well as to preserve the integrity of its teachings. A number of them are depicted in sexual embrace with their shakti, a fusion between the male and female energies into one dynamic super-deity. The exhibition displays a number of these images (cat. nos. 20, 37, 38, 41, 42, 51, 68, 69, 70, 72, 73, 76 and 80) which are wonderful examples of such bronze protector groups. These inspired compositions of couples manifested in a united and harmoniously balanced form, are mesmerizing from several angles. The various positions and striking movements create a sense of organic rhythm and dynamic force, revealing their physical inseparability and strong emotional interrelationship. The many arms, legs and heads express the multidimensionality of the god’s awareness. They symbolize his extensive power, the means necessary to destroy evil forces and to help protect against the suffering of samsara, the egocentric existence. In addition these complex sculptures achieve a sculptural expressive effect, as if they create their own volume and space. Catalogue number 28 shows Shiva with his consort, Uma. They sit together, yet each with their own space and they are shown in a more relaxed pose. Catalogue number 34 is an image of Vishnu with his consort Lakshmi, here united in a single supernatural form. Many of the bronzes are extremely impressive and often have a monumental radiance. The aesthetic qualities seem to be independent of size, as the impact of these bronzes, which are relatively small, can be compared to that of large stone sculptures.

The bronzes in this catalogue are multidimensional, which makes them fascinating to observe as they create their own aura and seem to take on a particular life of their own. They are unsurpassed in their majestic beauty and spiritual presence. Skilfully modelled, they contain a consistent quality of powerful rhythmic movements, beautiful volumes, pure lines, and finely delineated features. The natural patinas, gilding and polychromes complement their aesthetic beauty, and additional aesthetic elements are to be found in the finely executed thrones and nimbuses. The appearance and expression of these divine images change when viewed from different angles and the least change of lighting, time or setting, makes a subtle difference in the way they appear to the viewer. The aesthetic pleasure and strongly emotional aura these images convey seem to attune our consciousness to their deep religious significance. This communication is most meaningful as the audience is the crucial third part of the experience of art, which consists of the artist, the subject matter and the viewer. These bronze temple images seem to have been cast for eternity, and are an important and worthy representation of Asian sacred culture, a world which still contains many secrets.

INTRODUCTION: Introduction by Jan Van Alphen



all text & images © 2005 The authors, the photographers and the Ethnographic Museum, Antwerp | exhibitions