It’s very beautiful, very old (about 1,500 years), and very reassuring. And couldn’t we all do with a bit of that?
It’s also congested with mystery. Scholars still don’t know whether this larger-than-life-size limestone sculpture, one of the earliest and finest Chinese pieces in the superlative Asian collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, represents a bodhisattva — an enlightened being fired by compassion to help all other living beings — or a Maitreya, a so-called “Budhha of the Future.”
It’s a question of iconography. The crown suggests a bodhisattva; the cross-legged pose a Maitreya.
But the real mystery, of course, resides not in such questions of definition, but in the figure’s extraordinarily affecting presence: its half-closed eyes; its composed, archaic smile (typical of Eastern Wei dynasty sculpture); the sinuous, repeating lines of the drapery (influenced by the Greco-Roman drapery of Indian Gandharan art) that continue seamlessly from its torso into its stone base; and the even more sinuous outline of the whole sculpture in profile, which resembles nothing so much as a cobra preparing to strike. (And maybe, who knows?, that is how enlightenment happens. I’m waiting.)
How did this piece, which was excavated from the site of the famous White Horse Monastery — the so-called “cradle of Chinese Buddhism — near Luoyang, come into the MFA’s collection?
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