By Denise Patry Leidy

dark-colored buddha from the Walters Art museum
Figure 1

Acquired in the early 1920s from the Japanese dealer Yamanaka Sadajirō (1866–1936)[i] and said to be from the Great Buddha (Dafosi) Temple in Zhengding, Hebei Province, China, the Walters buddha (fig. 1) sits with his legs crossed in a posture symbolic of meditation. The position of his arms indicates that the missing hands were one above the other on his lap, a gesture (dhyana mudra) that is also meditative.

The Walters buddha is depicted wearing traditional Indian clerical clothing: a rectangular piece of cloth wrapped around the waist (barely visible), another rectangular garment draped over the left shoulder, and a third outer robe, or shawl, which also falls from the left shoulder. Traces of pigment on the upper undergarment’s hem indicate that a pattern in shades of orange, red, white, green, and blue decorated the border. The shawl is patchwork with red areas bordered in green.

Understood to symbolize asceticism and renunciation, the patchwork is a reference to the life of Buddha Shakyamuni (born Siddhartha Gautama some twenty-five hundred years ago), who gathered discarded rags to use as clothing. Such shawls, while technically known as samghati, are also called kasaya, a Sanskrit term that means “dull color.” The most important piece of clothing worn by a monk, and often awarded during ordination, shawls are catalogued by the odd numbers of stripes and patches in their construction.

side view of a seated buddha
Figure 2

Traces of gilding on the face, upper torso, and right arm indicate that the Walters buddha once had gold “flesh.” Golden skin is one of the thirty-two major and eighty minor marks that characterize the physically perfect body of either a spiritually advanced being, such as a buddha, or a divine ruler (chakravartin). While all of these symbols are recorded in texts, only a few—such as a protuberance at the top of the head (ushnisha) that signifies supernal understanding, elongated earlobes, and hair in snail shell-like curls—are typically featured in images of buddhas.

The curls are missing on the Walters buddha. Originally, they may have been painted or made using a combination of lacquer and putty, and then individually attached to the head. It is worth noting, however, that simple, flat hair is typical of Chinese Buddhist sculpture from the late sixth century and early seventh centuries, and not all representations of buddhas made at that time showed the snail-shell curls.[ii]

a small limestone buddha, seated, with one hand raised
Figure 3

Stylistically, the Walters buddha belongs to a tradition, found primarily in northeast China in the second half of the sixth century, of depicting bodies as round, column-like forms with little articulation of the upper chest and waistline (fig. 2).[iii] The buddha’s rounded but not particularly voluminous physique, full but flat face, and long arched eyebrows typify sculptures from the first decades of the Sui (581–617) dynasty. The rendering of clothing folds as thin, flat lines with no sense of depth—as shown in both the Walters buddha and in a stone example dated 582 (fig. 3)—is also typical of works produced at that time.

An open cavity in the back was, as is often the case with Buddhist icons, most likely filled with dedicatory material that served to both consecrate the sculpture and to enliven or activate it. Consecratory material in Chinese sculpture can include texts, textiles, semiprecious stones, and grains, as well as cloth reproductions of human organs. The use of such material, understood to symbolize the presence, charisma, and teachings of the Historical Buddha, can be traced to some of India’s earliest Buddhist monuments: burial mounds known as stupas, which mark the physical remains of Shakyamuni and other advanced practitioners. These monuments, as well as certain early South Asian sculptures, contain both actual and symbolic relics of Shakyamuni and others, as well as objects that they used in their lifetimes.[iv]


Both the Freer (fig. 4) and Metropolitan (fig. 5) buddhas sit in meditation. Both also wear standard Indic monastic garb, including undergarments and large shawls that fall from the left shoulders but leave the right uncovered. The buddhas’ shawls are composed of red patches with dark bands (fig. 6), and the hems of their upper undergarments are painted. The undergarment of the Metropolitan buddha—which, although repainted, is the best-preserved of the three—shows a band of either stylized clouds, or ruyi, an auspicious design based on the shape of a certain fungi.

Also like the Walters buddha, the Metropolitan buddha was acquired from Yamanaka and is thought to have come from the Dafosi Temple in Hebei Province.[v] The Freer buddha was purchased from Ellis Monroe, a New York dealer, in 1944. Both differ stylistically from the Walters sculpture and are later in date. Their articulated cheekbones, narrower shoulders, slight waistlines, and thinner, longer legs are comparable to those found in works dating to the beginning of the seventh century (fig. 7), when renewed awareness of contemporaneous Indic traditions began to appear in Chinese Buddhist art. Moreover, the folds of their shawls are deeper and more realistic than those on the Walters buddha’s garment. Both the Freer and Metropolitan pieces have traces of gilding on their torsos, face, and arms. Marks on their hairlines suggest that both sculptures’ heads once were covered with snail-shell curls, presumably made of lacquer.

A stone plaque, arched on top
Figure 7

Variations in the monastic shawls and the hand gestures suggest that the Freer and Metropolitan sculptures are part of a set and represent different buddhas. The shawl of the Freer buddha wraps across his waist; that of the Metropolitan buddha does not. The placement of the Freer buddha’s arms indicate that his right hand rested on that knee, while the left was held up in a gesture of reassurance known as the abhaya mudra. The hands of the Metropolitan buddha rested in his lap in the dhyana mudra, a gesture likely also made by the Walters buddha.

It seems likely that the Freer and Metropolitan sculptures, which are noticeably similar in appearance, of comparable size, and constructed in roughly the same manner, were originally part of a group of either three or four buddhas. The upper part of another lacquer buddha, also from Yamanaka, has been published,[vi] and an early reference suggests that this dealer once had three or four early lacquer buddhas for sale, including the one that is now in the Metropolitan.[vii] Three small buddhas sometimes appear as secondary icons in the halos of seated buddhas, particularly in sculptures made in northeast China in the late fifth and sixth centuries, but no independent group of three buddhas is known today.[viii] On the other hand, lists of buddhas associated with the four cardinal directions appear in multiple texts dating from the early fifth to the tenth century; and four-sided steles, often depicting different buddhas, were popular in China in the late sixth[ix] and seventh centuries. It seems likely that the Freer and Metropolitan buddhas were once part of a set of four.

Buddhas depicted on four-sided steles and in cave temples are rarely identified. However, parallels to the few inscribed works that are preserved[x] suggest that the purported set of four would have depicted the most popular and widely represented buddhas at the time: the Historical Buddha, Shakyamuni; the celestial Amitabha; the focus of the Pure Land tradition, Maitreya, who will become the teaching buddha of the next cosmic period; and Bhaishajyaguru, associated with healing.


Bodhisattva head, hollow-core lacquer, private collection
Figure SA

The eighth-century bodhisattva head, which is not on view in the exhibition but was part of our study, illustrates the continuing Chinese response to imported Indian and Central Asian traditions first seen in the Freer and Metropolitan buddhas (fig. SA). The bodhisattva’s full face and features and the elaborate chignon that covers the ushnisha typify art of the mid-Tang dynasty, when China served as the nexus for diplomatic and trade relationships between the Mediterranean world and Japan. This head, which was once part of a monumental sculpture, represents a classic type of East Asian Buddhist sculpture. The style spread to Korea and Japan together with a range of distinctive practice traditions that defined and united that part of Asia for centuries.

Next: Construction from the Inside Out: Early Chinese Lacquer Buddha Fabrication »