Hands of a Disciple

Hands of a Disciple


Tianbao reign, Northern Qi dynasty
550-559 CE
China
Limestone
Arhats & Disciples
Height 36 cm
2017.65

The Xiangtangshan Caves located in the Fengfeng Mining District in Handan, Hebei Province, are clustered in two groups: Northern and Southern Xiangtangshan. They represent the finest of grotto art produced in the Northern Qi dynasty (550-577 CE). This pair of limestone hands originally belonged to the Middle Cave at Northern Xiangtangshan, constructed during the reign of Emperor Wenxuan (550-559) of the Northern Qi dynasty. The cave is a huge central-pillared cave with a corridor in front of a main chamber, the second largest of all caves at Xiangtangshan.

Old pictures have shown that this fragmented piece originally belonged to the left acolyte disciple of a grouping featuring Śākyamuni Buddha flanked by two Bodhisattvas and two disciples in the large niche at the front of the central pillar. This disciple’s lean and rather aged face suggests that he is Mahākāśyapa, one of the ten principal disciples of Śākyamuni. He was deemed the foremost in ascetic dhūta practice. Before the Buddha passed away, he entrusted Mahākāśyapa with the task of imparting the Buddhist Dharma. After the Buddha entered parinirvāṇa, Mahākāśyapa became the head of the monastic community and convened the First Council at Rājagṛha for compiling Buddhist canon. Thereafter, he continued to lead the monastic community for more than two decades.

Although fragmented, this work is amazingly realistic. The left hand with palm up is holding a reliquary, while the fingers of the right hand are pressing against the lid. Both hands are soft and fleshy, as if boneless. The fingers are nimble, and the curvature of each finger differs. It is worth noting that the carver did not illustrate the knuckles, but rather, greatly emphasising the softness and texture of the hands. The fingernails are also finely represented. The hands look fleshy but not chubby; the gesture natural and lively. Overall, the carver’s superb artistry is well demonstrated.