Important Cultural PropertyMaitreya Buddha

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  • Cast bronze
  • H. 53.5 cm
  • China, Northern Wei dynasty, 443
  • Kyushu National Museum
  • C3

This image of Maitreya is dressed in a robe draped over both shoulders, and has both arms bent at the elbows. His left hand is extended with palms facing upwards, while his right palm faces the viewer, as he stands with feet apart atop a lotus pedestal, set above a four-legged stand. His hair and the protuberance (nikkei) on top both bear spiral patterns representing curled hair typically found on statues of buddhas, but his elongated earlobes are not ring-shaped, nor does he have three fleshy rings or folds around his neck. He also has webbed hands like a buddha. The four-legged stand, meanwhile, bears curled fern motifs on the inner surfaces, and triangular wave patterns as well as water jar motifs on the exterior.

Both the figure and pedestal were cast from a single mold and subsequently gilded. The resulting work points to excellent skill on the part of the caster. Standing at an impressive 53.5 cm, it is also relatively tall for a gilt-bronze image created during the Northern Wei dynasty. There is a rectangular opening in its back roughly three centimeters tall and two centimeters across, which may have been used as storage for other items.

The back of the stand bears an inscription stating that the people of Boye, Hebei commissioned this image in 443 as a prayer for Maitreya to guide the crown prince, his parents, and his family to enlightenment. This commission happened during the reign of Emperor Taiwu (r. 423–52), who had enacted policies heavily repressing Buddhism in 446 in favor of promoting Taoism. Part of these policies included destroying many Buddhist statues from before 446, making the current work a rare and valuable artifact that has survived.

This figure shares similarities with a number of stone Buddhist images found in grotto no. 169 of the Bingling Temple, located in Gansu Province. These include its slender body and dignified, stately stature formed by having both arms and legs far apart to either side of its body, its thin figure-hugging robes, as well as its stout physique. Such characteristics point to influences from Buddhist image conventions from regions west of China, such as the Indian Gupta style. On the other hand, it also bears characteristics found on most gilt-bronze statues created in the Northern Wei dynasty after Buddhism was restored. Some of these features include its smiling face, oval-shaped head, as well as the sets of two to three ridges forming the folds of its robes. Altogether, these factors make it an important image that demonstrates the sophisticated casting techniques of Northern Wei¬–dynasty China, and traces the changing styles in Chinese Buddhist images of the time.

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