“The empire is in utter chaos. Maitreya Buddha has incarnated, and the Manichaean King of Light has appeared in this world.”
As the Yuan dynasty crumbled amidst famine, floods and general unrest, the anti-Mongol slogan of Han Shantong, Grand Patriarch of the White Lotus sect, was a call to arms and rebellion. Central to Han’s belief structure was the idea that Maitreya Buddha had finally manifested in the world as the successor to Shakyamuni Buddha. Shortly after his demise in 1351, Zhu Yuanzhan, originally a member of the White Lotus sect, emerged as the leader of ethnic Han Chinese rebelling against the Mongol-led Yuan dynasty. In 1368, he proclaimed himself the Hongwu Emperor of the newly established Ming dynasty, taking the dynasty’s name from Han’s slogan.
This monumental bronze sculpture, which can be pinpointed by radiocarbon dating of organic material in its core to a period from the late Yuan to the Hongwu period, is an outstanding legacy of this turbulent age. Magnificently cast in the Udayana style, evoking the traditions of Buddhist art from Gandhara, it is a work of extraordinary presence. Little is recorded from this chaotic period, and so much of what was created must have been destroyed or melted down, but it seems likely that there was a heightened interest in the cult of Maitreya Buddha at this time, reflecting the prevailing belief structures. This inspired the creation of large-scale figures of Maitreya, of which this is a pre-eminent example. In the Buddhist tradition, Maitreya is said to reside in the perfected world of Tushita Heaven, but in the future age it is believed that he will descend as teacher and saviour of an earthly paradise known as Ketumati.
The iconography of the sculpture places it in the rich historic tradition of depicting Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future, standing with hands held in abhaya and varada mudra, and robed in a style known in China from the late fourth or early fifth century as Udayana, where the Buddha's outer garment covers both shoulders and falls in stylised undulations. The style is derived from the Buddhist sculpture of ancient Gandhara and early Central Asian cultures, where images of Buddha so successfully fused influences from the Hellenistic world with the rich artistic tradition of Indian sculpture.
Udayana is the ancient name of an area thought to be present-day Swat Valley, Pakistan, which was part of the early Gandhara region. Buddhist images displaying robes with pronounced folds, such as the colossal third or fourth century sculptures once standing at Bamiyan, were accessible to pilgrims via the Silk Road and the style thus found its way to China. It is recorded that the Chinese traveller Faxian visited this site sometime around the beginning of the fifth century. Testimony to this migration of style is seen in the famous gilt-bronze figure in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, dated 486 and identified by inscription as Maitreya, where the Buddha's hands are held in abhaya and varada mudra, with the robe falling from the shoulders in stylised undulations, see Denise Patry Leidy, Notes on a Buddha Maitreya sculpture dated 486 in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Oriental Art Magazine, vol. LV no. 3, 2005/6, pp. 22-32 .
Another gilt-bronze standing figure of Maitreya of identical structure and iconography, clearly from the same workshop but much smaller in size (50.2 cm high), was sold in our New York rooms, 16th September 2009, lot 12. (fig. 1). Acquired from Yamanaka Sokai, Osaka in the early 20th century, it is stylistically very close, and stands securely on a similar wood stand as the current figure, suggesting that it too may also originally have been with Yamanaka. The tradition of depicting Maitreya Buddha standing in the Udayana style continued to the Yongle period, as demonstrated by the iconography of the Yongle reign-marked Maitreya from the Speelman collection, sold in these rooms, 7th October 2006, lot 803. In contrast to the current sculpture, bronze Buddhist sculptures from the late Ming period generally show the concurrent fashions of loose and flowing outer garments with no stylised undulations. They also lack the distinctive feature of webbed hands, one of the lakshana or identifying marks of a Buddha, visible on earlier examples including the current figure.
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