Himalayan Art Resources

Item: Amitayus Buddha - Amitayus

སངས་རྒྱས་ཚེ་དཔག་མེད། - སངས་རྒྱས་ཚེ་དཔག་མེད། 无量寿佛 - 无量寿佛 Immeasurable Life
(item no. 16792)
Origin Location Tibet
Date Range 1400 - 1499
Lineages Buddhist
Size 43cm (16.93in) high
Material Metal, Mercuric Gild, Stone Inset: Turquoise
Collection Private
Notes about the Central Figure

Alternate Names: Aparimitayurjñana

Classification: Deity

Appearance: Buddha

Gender: Male

Interpretation / Description

Attributed to Sonam Gyaltsen: A Magnificent figure of Amitayus

Amitayus, Buddha (Tibetan: tse pag me; who is also known as The Enlightened One of Immeasurable Life, Lord of Limitless Life and Pristine Awareness, in the Sambhogakaya Appearance (Enjoyment Body) of a Buddha. The term 'Buddha' has two different meanings. The first meaning is an abstract religious definition and the second is a descriptive term used in Himalayan style art. In the tradition of Mahayana Buddhism Amitayus resides in the western direction in the pureland called Amitavyūhavatī. Full descriptions of his iconography and environment are found in the literature of the Aparimitāyurjñāna Sūtras.

Amitayus Tibetan: Tse pag me

The two names, Amitayus and Amitabha, describe the same entity, the same individual. Along with the two different names there is a difference in emphasis and a different appearance. Amitabha Buddha has the classic look of a Buddha figure wearing monastic robes, holding a begging bowl and displaying an ushnisha on the crown of the head. The Amitayus form is depicted as a peaceful male deity with long flowing hair, beautiful ornaments, heavenly garments, along with a long-life vase resting on the palms of the two hands placed in a meditation gesture. Although a Buddha, Amitayus, does not have Buddha appearance, but rather the appearance of a peaceful deity, and he represents immeasurable life, or rather the quality and promise of long life. The two names are often confused, conflated or used interchangeably. With painted examples the two figures are both depicted in a red colour.

'Bhagavan Lord of Limitless Life and Pristine Awareness with a body red in colour, one face, two hands and with two long eyes glancing with compassion on beings, gazing on the entirety of migrators; and a smiling face, wearing the complete sambhogakaya vestments. Above the two hands held in meditation is a long-life vase filled with the nectar of immortality; with the hair in tufts, adorned with silks and jewels, seated in vajra posture, the body blazing with the shining light of the [32] marks and [80] examples'. (Sakya Tridzin Kunga Tashi, 1656-1711).

The style of the present figure can be firmly compared and attributed to the early 15th century hand of Sonam Gyaltsen. This is evident in the body proportions, ornamentation and many minor details. The idea of a Sonam Gyaltsen atelier and distinctive sculptural style is relatively new, presented in New York first in early 2018, based on an inscription located on the lotus base of an Avalokiteshvara sculpture (Bonhams New York, 19 March 2018, lot 3033; Himalayan Art Resources item no.61516). The inscription was rich with information. Based on a triangulation of dates of four persons, two named donors, a well-known historical Buddhist teacher and the artist, a date of circa 1425 could be established for that sculpture.

A close comparison of the two sculptural works, the present Amitayus and the Sonam Gyaltsen Avalokiteshvara, demonstrates that they are both of similar date and made in the same workshop and most likely by the hand of the master sculptur Sonam Gyaltsen.

Since 2018 many more works have now been identified as belonging to the Sonam Gyaltsen sculpture atelier. However, unlike the firm attribution of the Avalokiteshvara by the inscription and the Amitayus by close comparable style and craftsmanship - this does not mean that all of the other sculptures were created or designed by the artist Sonam Gyaltsen. The name Sonam Gyaltsen, as found on the Bonhams Avalokiteshvara inscription, gave the crucial information in order to place that sculpture and similar stylistic works not only at a specific time, circa 1425 and later, but also geographically in the Tsang region of Tibet and specifically in the Shigatse/Shalu area. A number of objects from the body of work are of excellent quality and design, followed by many works that appear derivative and of a later production, some with tentative dates, for the later pieces, placing them into the 16th century.

Some of the special characteristics of the Sonam Gyaltsen atelier style are a well-proportioned body, fluid in movement and natural in appearance. Incising of floral patterns is commonly found around the bottom of the lotus base. Slight incising can be found on the small tips of the two layers of the double lotus base. The crown, earrings, three necklaces (choker, short, long), armlet, bracelets, anklets and belt are opulent and decorated with inset stones, turquoise stone being the most abundant.

The most essential point of these sculptural discoveries is that based on an identified inscribed work, along with a date, a general location can now be placed on a large body of sculpture albeit named after a specific prominent artist, the only named artist identified at this time for this sculptural style.

It is therefore reasonable that the now clearly recognisable style can be named, until more historical data is acquired, as the Sonam Gyaltsen sculpture atelier. From the standpoint of historical research that is the first important point. The second important point is the acknowledgement of the atelier as producing some of the finest Tibetan sculpture created during a golden age of both art and Tibetan literary output. The style represents a true synthesis of the best characteristics of sculpture styles from the surrounding regions of the Himalayas, India, Kashmir, Nepal and China, reshaped into a truly unique Tibetan aesthetic flourishing in the 15th century.

The present sculpture of Amitayus is arguably the only other work which to date can be firmly attributed to Sonam Gyaltsen, therefore further adding to the current identifiable body of work by the master sculptur.

Jeff Watt October 2019

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