The Rarest of Buddha Statues at the Met Museum

Buddha, Probably Amitabha, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Among the multitude priceless Chinese artifacts in the Met Museum’s collection, one sculpture from antiquity stands out for its cultural significance.  

It’s a 1,400-year-old statue from the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 AD), cataloged as “Buddha, Probably Amitabha (Amituofo)” that came from Longxing Temple in China’s Zhengding County, Hebei Province. Described as a hollow dry lacquer sculpture, this statue appears vivid and delicate, with a tranquil countenance and life-like gaze. It is in a sitting position, with a robe that drapes naturally across the torso, baring its right shoulder. The viewer can see the smooth musculature on the bare chest that seems flexible, with traces of gold foil remaining on the surface. On the other hand, the surface of the robe shows traces of red and blue paint. 

Buddha, Probably Amitabha, Metropolitan Museum of Art

This statue occupies a very important place in Chinese art history, because hollow dry lacquer Buddha statue of this vintage is exceedingly rare. Hollow dry lacquerware is an indigenous artisanal technique of China’s Han nationality. It originated during the Warring States Period (476 – 221 BC), and became popularized in the Western Han Dynasty (202 BC – 8 AD). Artisans first create a rough model with mud or clay, and then wrap it with 7-15 layers of painted ramie cloth. Upon drying, the mud or clay innards are then hollowed out. The finished product is durable with a lasting coloration, and is not susceptible to cracking or deformation.  

In early Han Dynasty, Buddhist missionaries would parade Buddha statues as tall as 9 feet from place to place, in order to collect alms for temple construction. The hollow construction of the dry lacquer technique makes the statue relatively light, which enables one to two people to carry a large statue with ease. 

Although dry lacquer construction of Buddhist statues spanned nearly a thousand years, the vast majority of the lacquerware statues was destroyed when Buddhism was twice outlawed in the late Tang Dynasty. This labor-intensive technique was nearly lost. With so few surviving lacquerware statues from the Tang Dynasty, this example at the Met Museum takes on a special significance. 

How It Came to America

Japanese antique dealer Sadajirō Yamanaka opened a branch office of his business in Beijing in the beginning of last century. It enabled him to directly source Chinese antiques for his collector clientele in Europe and the United States. One day in 1917, an antique dealer brought him four statues of Buddha. As a Sino-Japanese art expert, Yamanaka immediately recognized these ancient statues to be constructed using the dray lacquer process, and hence were extremely valuable. Without hesitation, he offered a handsome sum for all four statues 

Dry Lacquer Buddha, Walters Art Museum. This statue, which dates to the Sui Dynasty, is the oldest remaining lacquerware statue.

Saving one statue for himself, Yamanaka shipped the remaining three to his branch office in New York. Immediately it generated great interest from major museums in the United States. Eventually, they were sold separately to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Freer and Sackler Galleries of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, and the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. 

Longxing Temple

Longxing Temple

Longxing Temple, where the statues originated, is located just north of the city of Shijiazhuang in Hebei province, roughly 300km southwest of Beijing. Construction at the temple began in year 586 AD, during the Sui Dynasty. Centuries later, it was restored and expanded by the edict of the founding emperor of the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279 AD). For its imposing size and excellent state of preservation, it was considered the “Best Ancient Temple outside Beijing” by respected Chinese architectural historian Mr. Liang Sicheng. 

The gigantic forty-two-arm bronze Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva statue inside Longxing temple

Longxing Temple was renamed several times over the years. It was originally named Longzang Temple (Dragon Treasure), and was renamed Longxing (Prosperous Dragon) in Tang Dynasty. At the beginning of Northern Song Dynasty, Emperor Zhao Kuangyin ordered the construction of the gigantic forty-two-arm bronze Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva statue in the temple, as well as a number of pagodas and other auxiliary buildings on temple grounds. It saw additional construction in all of the subsequent dynasties. Its current name Longxing (Vigorous Prosperity) was granted by Emperor Kangxi of the Qing Dynasty (1709 AD).

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