A polychrome carved wood figure of Samantabhadra on an elephant

元至明早期 十三至十五世紀     木刻騎象普賢像

The bodhisattva is carved as a masculine figure seated in lalitasana on a long red saddlecloth on the back of an elephant, with his pendent left foot resting on a lotus. He wears elaborate robes painted in red and green pigments, with traces of gold leaf. A scarf is passed about his shoulders, falling to each side against the flanks of his mount. His left arm is lowered, and the remaining part of his right arm is held slightly out from the body. He wears a beaded pectoral on his otherwise bare chest. His face, with benign expression, is flanked by large earlobes with earrings. His hair is pulled up and secured with a diadem, with two braids (one now missing) falling to the shoulders. The elephant stands placidly, with the right foreleg slightly advanced. Its head is turned to the left, carved with a long eye with traces of painted eyelashes. The long,  floppy ears flank a triratna set as a crest on the halter. The trunk, part missing, curls back towards the chest. The sturdy legs, with clearly indicated toes, rest on the thick, oval base. There are traces of white pigment to the body and red to the inside of the ears. 

Swiss private collection, acquired in the early 20th century

Priestley & Ferraro, 'Symbol and Support.  The Elephant's Role in Chinese Art', November 2018, no. 6

For a related carved wood figure of a bodhisattva seated on an elephant, see Sotheby’s Paris,  1th December 2014, lot 111.

The elephant is the characteristic vahana, or “vehicle”, of Samantabhadra, the Bodhisttava of  universal Virtue, known in China as Puxian (普賢). Together with Manjusri (Chinese, Wenshu 文殊), the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, who rides on a lion, they form a trinity with the central figure of the Buddha Sakyamuni. The scriptural basis for this is the Avatamsaka Sutra (The Flower Garland Sutra), which was first translated into Chinese in around the fifth century.
His role in the trinity is to emphasize practice and meditation, whereas his counterpart Manjusri is associated with wisdom and insight. He is also the patron of the Lotus Sutra, suggesting that the present figure may originally have been carrying a lotus-leaf. For a discussion of this subject matter, see Chinese Decorative Arts, p. 39. 

Samantabhadra, like Avalokitesvara (Chinese, Guanyin 觀音) appears to change gender slowly through the centuries. Early representations are male, but by the end of the Ming dynasty are often female. The present figure appears male but the face already has an epicene quality, which accords with a Yuan to early Ming date.


Dimensions: Height: 38.5 cm, 15 ⅛ inches

Date: Yuan or early Ming dynasty, 13th-15th century

Stock No. 2214

Price: On Request