Buddha Maitreya (Mile fo)

Period: Northern Wei dynasty (386–534)

Date: dated 486

Culture: China

Medium: Gilt bronze with traces of pigment; piece-mold cast

Dimensions: H. 55 1/4 in. (140.3 cm); W. 24 1/2 in. (62.2 cm); D. 19 1/4 in. (48.9 cm)

Classification: Sculpture

Credit Line: John Stewart Kennedy Fund, 1926

Accession Number: 26.123


Of impressive size, this elegant Buddha wears the three traditional garments of an Indian monk: an underskirt, an intermediate garment, and a voluminous shawl. His right hand is raised in the abhayamudra indicating assurance, and his left shows the varadamudra, or bestowing gesture, although neither is treated with the orthodoxy found in later images. The Buddha's countenance is serene. Thin, arching eyebrows, downcast eyes with heavy lids, a delicate nose, and full lips define his face, framed by overlarge ears. His hair is styled to cover a prominent ushnisha–the cranial protuberance indicative of infinite wisdom.

The Buddha's broad shoulders and torso and long legs derive from well-established Indian conventions. The ribbonlike ridges that depict the drapery folds, on the other hand, have prototypes in sculptures produced in the Mathura area during the mid-fifth century. Both elements show modifications, such as the highly stylized hems of the shawl and the Buddha's open stance, based on Central Asian imagery.

A controversial inscription incised into the back of the lotus pedestal identifies the sculpture as an image of the Bodhisattva Maitreya and provides a date that can be read as either 477 or 486. Valid questions remain regarding the authenticity of this citation. It should, however, be noted that devotion to Maitreya played an important role in Chinese Buddhism in the fifth and early sixth century. In addition, the use of stylized ridges to depict drapery folds is found in a freestanding bronze sculpture of a Buddha dated to 443, and in such famous works as the colossi in Caves 19 and 20 at Yungang, Shanxi Province, carved between 464 and 470.