Gilt bronze with traces of pigment, piece-mold cast
H. 55 1/4 in. (140.3 cm)
John Stewart Kennedy Fund, 1926 (26.123)
This sculpture, which is the largest early gilt bronze statue known from China, remains one of the best examples of the use of a distinctive style of drapery in Chinese art from about 460 to 490. The Buddha stands with his feet on an upturned lotus base set above a two-tiered pedestal. He has wide shoulders, a defined waist, and long legs and arms, and wears three garments: a long saronglike undergarment, an intermediary piece, and a large rectangular shawl that is draped across the back and front and falls over his proper left shoulder. The folds of the shawl, which are shown as appliqué-like bands with a thin crease in the center, are distinctively patterned: they fall in inverted, interconnected lunettes over the chest and abdomen, and as vertical pleats along the sides of the torso. Those covering the shoulders and upper arms end in unusual flamelike forms. The rendering of the Buddha's physique derives from Indian traditions; however, the dramatically stylized patterns seen in the drapery can be traced to the art of Pakistan, and to related traditions at centers such as Kucha on the northern branch of the Silk Road.
Maitreya is one of the more interesting deities in Buddhism. He is worshipped both as a bodhisattva in this world and as a Buddha. Once our cosmic era has destroyed itself, he will be reborn as the teaching Buddha of the next great period. The identification of this sculpture as a representation of the Buddha Maitreya is based on a large dedicatory inscription at the back of the base, which also gives the date 486, and states that the sculpture was made in honor of the Dowager Empress for the benefit of ten classes of beings. The empress is question is Wenming (442–490), who controlled the Northern Wei empire during the late fifth century.