14. Maitreya
(cat. pl. 27)
c. ?17th century
Gilt copper with pigment
h. 23.7 cm


This superb sculpture is an example of a fascinating, although still poorly understood, phenomenon in Tibetan sculpture. It is a relatively late work that is modelled according to the aesthetic ideals of a much earlier time. This particular- perhaps seventeenth-century - image follows the aesthetic of Licchavi period (300-879) sculpture from Nepal. Maitreya's head resembles the heads in Licchavi examples: in the shape of the usnisa, in the high forehead and the hair line, in the the curve of the ears. The face is also very similar in shape to the faces of Licchavi figures, and he has a hooked nose and a jutting lower lip - all characteristic of Licchavi period works.258 Moreover, the lower legs are drawn in close to the torso, with the feet placed high up on the thighs, as if the toes, heels and lower legs are on a linear continuum that begins at the knees, a distinctive manner of depicting this seated posture that is also specific to early Nepalese works.259 Maitreya exhibits pronounced webbing between all of his fingers. Although it is iconographically prescribed as one of the physical signs (laksana) of an enlightened being, the representation of webbed fingers was given less emphasis in Nepalese sculpture after the Licchavi period, and was rarely emphasized in Tibetan sculpture. Its presence here is also a clear indication of the sculptor's observance of Licchavi aesthetic ideals.260 Finally, the low, curved platform that serves as a seat for Maitreya is another reference to Licchavi models, which are often cast to include a low support designed to allow attachment to a separate lotus pedestal.261

Despite the presence of these Licchavi features, much in this work suggests that it is a later interpretation of Licchavi period sculpture. Thus, the face while beautiful lacks the transcendent spirituality of Licchavi images. The hands are overly delicate and their pose is mannered when compared with the powerfully rendered mudras of Licchavi examples. Maitreya's robe cloaks his body, unlike those of Licchavi prototypes, where thin folds of cloth offer only the faintest suggestion of covering the form beneath. An object held in the hand of a Licchavi figure would have been cast in one piece with the figure.262 The now missing water vessel (kundika) that was held in this Maitreya's left hand was cast separately and secured by a post that can still be seen. The separate casting of images and their implements is a later phenomenon in Tibetan sculpture. Many Nepalese Licchavi period sculptures were housed in Tibetan monasteries and the sculptor of this work was clearly familiar with such an example, which must have inspired his homage to Licchavi aesthetic ideals.263 (cat. pl. 27)

258. See especially a c. ninth-century standing Buddha photographed by Tucci at Ngor monastry and published in Tucci (1949), p. 206, fig. 85; also published in Schroeder (1981), fig. 76E.
259. Compare with Licchavi works, published in Schroeder (1981), Figs. 74B and 74C.
260. See the pronounced webbing on the hands of a Licchavi Buddha in the Kimbell Art Museum in Forth Worth, Texas, published in Schroeder (1981), fig. 75F. Note the feature in two Gupta Buddha images in the John D. Rockefeller III Collection, published in Schroeder (1981), figs. 43B and 45E.
261. See a c. seventh-century seated Buddha published in Schroeder (1981), fig. 74C; and Licchavi image in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, published in Pal (1985), fig. S6, pp. 90-1.
262. For example a c. ninth-century Avalokites'vara in the British Museum, published in Schroeder (1981), fig. 77A.
263. In addition to the image cited in note 258 above as coming from Ngor monastery, See a Licchavi-period Maitreya at Mindroling monastery in central Tibet, published in Henss (1996), fig. 13.

images © Nyingjei Lam
text © D. Weldon, Jane C. Singer