Shining a Spotlight on a Sixth-Century Bronze Maitreya

By: Adam Smith

Originally Published in 2022

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Throughout Spring 2022, Penn Museum visitors will see updates to the light-filled Asia Galleries on the Upper Level, particularly in the smaller, outer gallery. Following its partial deinstallation for renovations including the addition of a new passenger elevator in 2019, the gallery is now being repainted, with objects rearranged and new graphics added for a better visitor experience. There are also notable installations of objects not previously on display, including a stone stupa fragment from Gandhara, Pakistan, and, in the small, circular spotlight side gallery, the sixth-century gilt-bronze Maitreya figure that came to the Penn Museum in 1918. Treating the Maitreya in preparation for its installation, Conservator Tessa de Alarcon took high resolution photographs that enabled Curator Adam Smith to read clearly the inscription engraved into the bronze pedestal and to improve on the partial and inaccurate transcriptions that have previously appeared.

Side by side shots of the Asia Galleries
The smaller of the two Asia Galleries will feature the statuette of the Maitreya, C355, in a renovated spotlight gallery, along with new graphics, visitor seating areas, and objects rearranged for a better visitor experience. Renderings by the Penn Museum Exhibitions Department.

The sixth-century CE bronze Maitreya figure, Penn Museum object number C355, with its glittering gilded surface and fiery aura, is one of the most visually appealing Buddhist figures in the collection. The divinity Maitreya appears in different ways in texts and images from many Buddhist traditions. The makers of this image thought of Maitreya dwelling in the splendors of Tuṣita Heaven, awaiting his final rebirth and Buddhahood in a remotely distant future. Devotees of Maitreya prayed for rebirth in Tuṣita heaven and an eventual final rebirth to coincide with his.

Buddhist literature encouraging these aspirations circulated in Chinese translations in the two centuries before C355 was made. In the Sutra on the Descending Birth of Maitreya, translated in the early fifth century, the Buddha Śākyamuni foresees the visual qualities of the future Buddha Maitreya in very much the same terms as the makers of the bronze figure.

“All sentient beings will never tire of looking upon him.…his body will be flawless and incomparably perfectly arranged. Possessing the thirty-two major marks and the eighty minor marks, he will resemble a golden statue.…the light of the sun, moon, fire, or jewels will be eclipsed, and only this transcendent buddha light will shine.…the Buddha will emanate light illuminating countless lands, and those who are worthy of salvation will see the Buddha.” (tr. Iida & Goldstone, 2016)

A Little-Known Past

Bronze figure of Maitreya
Gilt-bronze figure of Maitreya, C355, dated by inscription to 536 CE.

The statue of Maitreya came to the Museum in 1918. Before that, it had appeared in the famous catalog of Chinese art by Ōmura Seigai, published in Japan in 1915. Ōmura stated that the item was in the Taozhai collection, that is, the personal collection of the late-Qing senior civil servant and diplomat Duanfang (1861–1911). Duanfang had died four years before the publication of Ōmura’s catalog, killed in the revolution of 1911 as a representative of the Manchu Qing dynasty, who had ruled since their conquest of China in the seventeenth century. None of the catalogs of Duanfang’s collection published during his lifetime include C355, so perhaps he had acquired the Maitreya figure only a year or two before his death.

It is unlikely Ōmura saw C355 himself. His catalog has no photograph of the statue but reproduces enough of the inscription for us to see that it is the same object. He mentions a rubbing of the inscription provided by his collaborator Luo Zhenyu (1866–1940). Luo was a Qing loyalist and antiquarian, living in exile in Japan because of the same political upheavals that ended Duanfang’s life.

We do not know who owned the statue before that and can only conjecture where the object spent the fourteen centuries between the date on its inscription and Duanfang’s time. It may have come from a deposit of monastery images buried during the ninth-century persecution of Buddhism. One such deposit, containing over two thousand images from the sixth through eighth centuries, was discovered in 1953 in the same county (Upper Quyang County) mentioned in the inscription on C355. All those images were stone and damaged as opposed to gilt-bronze and intact.

In fact, the Maitreya in the Penn Museum is one of six startlingly similar gilt-bronze figures all of which appeared in the early 20th century, and then entered museum collections via the art market. Two in New York’s Metropolitan Museum have extra figures and elaborations, but each central figure corresponds to C355. The others are in the Toledo Museum, the Detroit Institute of Art, and the Harvard Center for Italian Renaissance Studies in Florence. Among them, the Penn figure is distinguished by its lengthy inscription of 179 characters.

Illuminating the Inscription

No objections to the sixth-century date of C355 have ever been raised. The statue is generally taken on stylistic grounds, to be a fine example of gilt-bronze Buddhist statuary of the period. Still, without a recorded archaeological context it remains an open question whether any of the features it has today involve later modifications. Was the gilding redone? When was the repair made to the break in the fiery aura behind the figure? Were the body and pedestal cast together or were they joined after casting? If they were joined, are they contemporary with each other? Is the inscription contemporary with the object, or was it added more recently? C355 has not received the kind of technical analysis that would be required to exhaust these questions. However, new photographs of the inscription taken by Museum Conservator Tessa de Alarcon provide an opportunity to reread the text, and to improve on the partial or inaccurate transcriptions that have appeared previously.

Right side of C355 pedestal.
C355 inscription, first half, proper right-hand side of pedestal; photo by Tessa de Alarcon.

Rear of C355 pedestal.
C355 inscription, second half, rear of pedestal; photo by Tessa de Alarcon.

Detail of inscription on C355
Detail of inscription on C355, names of donors Li Sixian 李思賢 and Le Sanmen 樂三門. Photo by Tessa de Alarcon.

The new photographs show an exceedingly skilled engraver cutting the text into the bronze of the pedestal, using sharp, deftly placed wedge-shaped strokes to produce Chinese characters of about 5 mm square. Gilding was applied after the inscription was cut, since it can be seen in the interior of the strokes. At some point, a dark substance was applied to the inscription, filling the engraved grooves, perhaps to make the text more visually prominent.

Disciples of the Buddha

The inscription on C355 is a complex expression of the religious, political, geographic, and cultural identities of the donors who had the statue made. It begins with a date, “the third day of the third moon of the third year of Heaven’s Peace,” and an identification of the donors as “disciples of the Buddha, from Upper Quyang County in the Province of Dingzhou.” The “third year of Heaven’s Peace” corresponds to 536 CE, and the location is now in modern Hebei Province, People’s Republic of China, about 120 miles from Beijing.

When the statue was made, there was no single mainland East Asian state corresponding to what we think of today as China. Dingzhou was a province of the Wei 魏 empire, which had governed the Yellow River region for a hundred and fifty years. Chinese was the literary and administrative lingua franca, and most of the Wei population probably spoke varieties of Chinese. The hereditary rulers of Wei, foreign conquerors from the north, and the military families on whom they depended for dominance, identified themselves ethnically as Xianbei 鮮卑, with their own languages and cultural identities.

Microphotograph of inscription on C355
Microphotograph of inscription on C355, gilding over engraved cuts and dark substance filling the grooves; photo by Tessa de Alarcon.

The Maitreya statue was made after a decade of violent disaster for the Wei ruling family. Warlord kingmakers of Xianbei and other northern ethnicities were manipulating the dynastic succession by drowning, poisoning, and deposing candidate heirs. In 528 CE, members of the ruling family and 2,000 courtiers were massacred in the capital, Luoyang. By the time the statue was made, there were two rival claims to the Wei monarchy: one in the east and another 400 miles to the west. East Asian dates were traditionally counted using monarchs’ reigns, and the optimistic-sounding era name used on the Maitreya statue, “Heaven’s Peace,” is that of the eastern claimant. As a twelve-year-old child, already in the third year of a reign that had been manipulated by his regent, he must have felt exposed and vulnerable.

After the date and the place, the inscription lists forty-nine donors. It was common for ordinary people to join kinship-based “devotional societies,” pooling their resources to pay for Buddhist shrines or images. In some inscriptions, the names are preceded by ranks or titles within the devotional society or by kinship terms (“son,” “granddaughter,” etc.). In this case, we have only a list of names, with no religious, official, or other titles. Of the 49 donors, 32 share the same surname, Le 樂, a relatively rare Chinese surname. They come first in the list and are presumably several generations of the male lineage around which the devotional society was organized. Others surnames appear later in the list: ten of the much more common surname Li 李, and one each of Liu 劉, Yuan 元, Geng 耿, Han 韓, Meng 孟, and Rong 戎. These are probably women who married into the Le family or sons of Le daughters.

The given names are interesting. Many of them have conventionally uplifting Chinese connotations: Han Longxing (“The dragon arises”), Le Baogui (“Preserve esteem”), Li Sixian (“Contemplate the wise”). Although none of the donors have monastic titles, many of them have given names similar to the so-called dharma names that monks take upon ordination: Le Sengci (“Monks’ benevolence”), Le Fasheng (“Born of the Dharma”), and Le Sengzun (“Monks’ obedience”).

Map of Wei in early 6th century CE.
Wei in the early 6th century CE.

Some of the given names reflect the fascinating cultural and linguistic mix of the region and period. Le Pantuo 樂槃陀 shares his given name with several of the wealthy Sogdian merchants who ran the Silk Road trade and whose sixth century and later tombstones have been found in China. When Sogdians wrote their name in Chinese, Pantuo 槃陀 was how they transcribed the Sogdian word vandak meaning “slave” or “servant.” In Sogdian names it is used in combination with the name of a deity, with the sense of “servant of such-and-such a deity” (just as the Arabic name Abdullah means “Servant of God”). Why one member of the Le family should have this foreign-sounding name is puzzling, given that all the donors named in the inscription have culturally Chinese names. Perhaps the growing social prestige of Sogdian merchants during the sixth century made the name attractive.

Most puzzling of all to a modern reader of the inscription are the names that include the Chinese word nu 奴 “slave.” The Le family’s inscription has no less than four personal names with nu “slave,” including offensive-sounding examples like Le Chounu 樂醜奴 (“Ugly slave”). In fact, names of this kind were very common during the sixth century. In some cases, they were used as nicknames for elite children, in a mocking inversion of the status of enslaved persons. However, the Le family were not elite, and it would be surprising to find nicknames in a formal inscription. It is sometimes suggested that these unpleasant names were given to protect children from the misfortune which a more pleasant name might attract. However, some names of this type found in other texts, like Shinu 釋奴 “slave of the Buddha,” seem to align more closely with the Sogdian names like “servant of such-and-such a deity”. Perhaps the popularity of these surprising names resulted from the interaction of multiple traditions of naming—Chinese and non-Chinese, Buddhist and non-Buddhist.

Six Versions Of The Maitreya

Six images of bronze figures, one of which is the Penn Maitreya.

The Penn Maitreya (third from left) is one of six startlingly similar gilt-bronze figures that entered western museum collections from the art market in the early 20th century. The others, from left to right, are in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (two figures); the Detroit Institute of Art; the Toledo Museum, Ohio; and the Harvard Center for Italian Renaissance Studies at the Villa I Tatti in Florence.
Close-ups of the heads of the six bronze figures.

Details such as the folds in the robe, curls of hair, and creases in the palm of the raised hand indicate the close relationship between these six figures. Images courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Detroit Institute of Art, the Toledo Museum, and the Harvard Center for Italian Renaissance Studies.
Close-ups of hands of five bronze figures

Inscription on C355


The text of the inscription became clearly legible through new photographs taken by Museum Conservator Tessa de Alarcon, providing an opportunity to improve on the partial or inaccurate transcriptions that have appeared previously.

A Hopeful Conclusion

After the long list of donors, the inscription ends with their hopes in commissioning the statue:

“[The Le family] respectfully makes this statue of Maitreya, wishing that all people under heaven attain supreme peace, hear the Buddha’s words in every rebirth and every generation, and together with all living creatures reach true enlightenment.”

Once the inscription had been completed and the statue gilded, the Maitreya image would have been placed on view in a shrine. Given its small size, it would not have suited a large monastery hall. More likely, it would have been in a smaller shrine maintained by the Le family for their own use, perhaps with the support of monks from a nearby monastery of which were many in Dingzhou in the sixth century. Viewed frontally, there is nothing to distract from a devotee’s contemplation of Maitreya. Only a closer inspection of the side and back of the pedestal would have revealed the names of the donors to later generations of the Le family.

Adam Smith, Ph.D., is Assistant Curator in the Asian Section.

Cite This Article

Smith, Adam. "Shining a Spotlight on a Sixth-Century Bronze Maitreya." Expedition Magazine 64, no. 1 (June, 2022): -. Accessed May 29, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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