Ulrich von Schroeder
Tibetan Brass Traditions
The great geographical size of Tibet facilitated the development of different artistic traditions characterised by different foreign influences. With regard to metal alloys that were suitable for the casting of statues, there existed only two principal possibilities: either the use of copper or of brass, an alloy of copper and zinc. The choice of the alloy depended on the demand of the patron, whether the commissioned statue had to be gilt or not gilt. The Newar artists from Nepal preferred gilt copper. The gilt Tibetan statues in general have an affinity with Nepalese art. Using brass alloys for casting was a technique introduced in Tibet by artists from Kashmir (1–6) and also Northern India (7–9).
When studying Tibetan brass statues it becomes evident that there exist different traditions that developed more or less independently. With the exception of the monk portrait, all brass statues illustrated here reflect to various degrees stylistic influences of two particular Indian regions that used brass alloys for casting their statues. The tradition of casting statues in brass alloys entered Tibet from two sources, namely the greater area of Kashmir in North-Western India and the dominions of the Pala rulers of Bihar and Bengal in North-Eastern India. The influence of the art of Kashmir was especially felt in the kingdoms of Western Tibet where artists from Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh were active. The influence of the Pala traditions mainly affected the development of the artistic traditions of Central and Southern Tibet, where Nepalese influence was also felt strongly.
The evolution of styles is a gradual process that cannot be explained in rational terms. It happens not by convention, but is rather the mirror of a gradual change of consciousness incorporating all aspects of human activities and experience. Both patrons and artists participate in the never-ending quest for aesthetic perfection. Four of the illustrated statues demonstrate the stylistic development of Tibetan sculptures within a period of about two hundred years. The earlier two statues of Aksobya and of the Green Tara date from about the 12th century and retain quite some archaic simplicity and naivety (31–32). The statues of Ratnasambhava and the other Green Tara were cast about two hundred years later during the 14th century (33–34). These latter two statues reflect more stylistic maturity and an improved technical experience.
The contrasting colours of different metal alloys can be utilized to emphasize particular details of statues. The tradition of inlaying the eyes, especially of brass statues, with silver, or the mouth with copper, was introduced into Tibet from India. It was practiced earlier in the Swat and Kashmir regions of North-Western India, as well as in North-Eastern India. Relatively soft and malleable metals, such as gold, silver, copper, and tin, are especially suited for this purpose. The inlay tradition was later rendered obsolete by painting the faces of statues with “cold gold”. Two of the illustrated statues are excellent examples of the inlaying method. One represents a standing three-headed Avalokitesvara dating from the 12th or 13th century (35). The other image with facial expressions of a portrait-like character represents Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen (1292–1361) (36). This statue shows an example of the Byang lugs or “northern style” tradition of Western Tsang in Southern Tibet. This style is distinguished by a strong realism and often includes ornamentation in relief work. Two similar statues are in custody of the Lhasa Jokhang/Tsuglagkang, and all three were likely modelled with the help of matrixes, with the details finished individually.
31. Aksobhya. Tibetan brass traditions: 12th century
Brass; hollow cast. Height: 25.3 cm
32. Syama-Tara. Tibetan brass traditions: 12th century
Brass; inlaid with silver and copper. Height: 39 cm
33. Ratnasambhava. Tibetan brass traditions: 14th century
Brass; inlaid with silver and copper. Height: 42.3 cm
34. Syama-Tara. Tibetan brass traditions: 14th century
Brass; inlaid with silver and copper. Height: 21.5 cm
35. Avalokitesvara. Tibetan brass traditions: 12th/13th century
Brass; inlaid with silver and copper. Height: 58.5 cm
36. Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen (1292–1361). Tibet: c. 1400
Brass; inlaid with silver and copper. Height: 16.3 cm