Period: Northern Wei dynasty (386–534)
Date: dated 524
Medium: Gilt bronze
Dimensions: H. 30 1/4 (76.8 cm); W. 16 in. (40.6 cm); D. 9 3/4 in. (24.8 cm)
Credit Line: Rogers Fund, 1938
Accession Number: 38.158.1a–n
This magnificent and uncommonly large altarpiece is one of the great artistic achievements of the Tuoba, a non-Chinese people who occupied most of the provinces north of the Yellow River by the middle of the fifth century. As founders of the Northern Wei dynasty, the Tuoba ruled northern China until 534. The cave temples of Yungang and Longmen sponsored by the Tuoba emperors are a tangible expression of their ardent faith in Buddhism. Further testimony to this strong devotion, the Maitreya altarpiece is a fine example of the creativity and skill of the late Northern Wei dynasty. Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future, stands against the glittering background of a mandorla. With hand gestures, he reassures the worshippers and promises to grant their wishes. Two bodhisattvas stand at the Buddha's side, and two sit at his feet. Four offerers, perhaps Tuoba in their nomadic dress, hold bowls. Two thunderbolt bearers guard the corners of the altarpiece; two lions sit on either side of the incense burner, below the Buddha. Nine music-making angels alight on the rim of the mandorla. The images are placed on superimposed tiers that become narrower toward the top. A fluttering angel rests at the apex. All these holy participants seem to be enclosed in an imaginary triangle that becomes the symbolic boundary of the heavenly realm. In its linearity and abstraction, the altarpiece represents the mature Northern Wei style. The images, particularly that of the Buddha, display elongated narrow bodies swathed in several layers of clothing. Only the face and hands emerge as focal devotional points. Tension, vigor, and dynamism are strongly expressed by the decorative patterns formed by the flickering flames and the angels' fluttering ribbons that taper off in space.