Seated Buddha, 6th century
Limestone 16 3/4 in. x 7 3/8 in. (42.55 cm x 18.73 cm)
Crocker Art Museum, anonymous gift2008.9
Buddhism spread from India to China by the 1st century ce, and by the 5th century was under the patronage of royalty. Although temples from this early period are no longer extant, caves are. Following a practice begun in India, caves were used as monasteries (vihara) and temples and were adorned with paintings and sculptures carved directly into the rock; notable examples include Dunhuang, Longmen, and Yungang. The excavations at the Longmen caves, begun by the Emperor Xiaowen (r. 471–499) of the Northern Wei Dynasty (368–535), include more than 2,300 caves and niches and over 110,000 sculptural images.1
By the 5th century, Buddha images included Shakyamuni Buddha (the historical Buddha), Maitreya (the future Buddha), and Amitabha (the Buddha of the Pure Land sect). Without a narrative context, it is not always clear which Buddha is being represented. This figure, seated with his legs crossed and holding his right hand in abhaya mudra (have no fear gesture) and his left in varada mudra (gift-bestowing gesture), is not a clear iconographic type. It is likely that he represents either Maitreya or Amitabha, the most frequently depicted Buddhas of the period.
The high miter-like headdress indicates this Buddha was carved at the end of the Northern Wei Period, when the chignon and headdress had merged. The Wei were a protoMongolian people (Tuoba), but by the 6th century, their sculptural style had become increasingly sinicized; note the robe that covers both shoulders and the linear treatment of the drapery.2