Encountering the Buddha: Art and Practice Across Asia

Buddha in Gold

Buddha in gold full image
Buddhist Altarpiece, F1914.21a-h

What is it made of? Bronze with a thin layer of gold
Where was it made? China
When was it made? Sui dynasty, 597 CE


Take a look at this altarpiece—a religious sculpture that believers focus on during prayer or meditation. This sculpture features a buddha standing between two bodhisattvas (beings who have reached enlightenment and want to help others). Although this object may look like it is made of solid gold, it was actually made of bronze that was gilded, which means a thin layer of gold was applied to the surface. As you can see, the gilding is peeling off the statue because it was buried underground for a thousand years. Sometimes, if a religious sculpture was no longer being used, it was buried, which showed more respect than throwing it in the trash.


Gold was expensive in sixth-century China, so only the richest people, including nobles, could afford it. On the base of the sculpture, you can see writing that includes the names of sixteen women who pitched in to have this altarpiece made. Some of these donors seem to have had royal connections!


The Buddha teaches that physical change is inevitable—and the same applies to this sculpture! Think of what this altarpiece might have looked like before and after gilding, and how it has changed to look the way it does now.


Do you own something that you want to look like solid precious metal—even if you’re not an emperor or empress? Gild your own object! Or, you could silver-plate it by adding a thin layer of silver on top of a less expensive material. Since most of us do not have silver leaf handy, try wrapping a cherished object in aluminum foil to make it sparkle and shine. Where will you display it?

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