Altarpiece dedicated to Buddha Maitreya (Mile), Northern Wei dynasty (386–534), dated 524
Gilt bronze; H 30 1/4 in. (76.9 cm)
Rogers Fund, 1938 (38.158.1a–n)
Identification of this Buddha derives from the inscription on the back, which identifies the central figure as Maitreya, gives a date equivalent to 524, and states that a certain individual commissioned the sculpture on behalf of his deceased son Gaizhi. The inscription also expresses the hope that the son and other relatives will eventually be reunited in the presence of the Buddha, and suggests that the altarpiece was commissioned to gain merit for a family or clan, and to serve as a focus of personal devotion.
This altarpiece is among the few remaining freestanding examples of works exhibiting an artistic style that developed at the Northern Wei court in Luoyang in the first three decades of the sixth century. The Buddha has the attenuated physique and face and heavy concealing drapery that is characteristic of this period of Chinese Buddhist sculpture. Buddha Maitreya is attended by two standing and two seated bodhisattvas. The former are placed atop lotuses that spring from the mouth of coiling dragons at the sides of the altarpiece, a motif that became prominent in the second half of the sixth century. The latter are seated before the Buddha with one leg pendant and the other crossed over the opposite knee, a posture commonly known as the "pensive pose." Two monks stand before the two bodhisattvas. Four figures wearing clothing used by the Xianbei (or Tuoba)—the non-Chinese rulers of the Northern Wei—stand on palmlike leaves between the two pairs of bodhisattvas. They hold bowls and other offerings; and represent devotees, probably the donor and members of his family, who are revering the standing Buddha. Two guardians are placed on lotus petals at the front and sides of the altarpiece and two lions guard the front where a caryatid lifts a base supporting several lotus leaves and a large oval container that is hinged and was designed to be opened. Two minuscule figures, one kneeling and one standing, are placed on lotus flowers to either side of the bud-shaped container. They may represent souls that will be reborn in Maitreya's paradise, known as a Tushita Heaven, while awaiting a rebirth during which they will become enlightened.