In China, Buddhism began to flourish from the Northern and Southern dynasties onward, and during the Tang dynasty it came to be even more widely practiced, stimulating the production of many Buddhist images. During the Northern and Southern dynasties, Buddhist imagery became more Sinicized, meaning that the facial features and garments began to look more like those of the Han Chinese, even though China and India continued to have a lively exchange. Chinese monks such as Xuanzang (602–664) and Yiching (635–713) traveled to India in search of Buddhist teachings, and many monks visited from India and the western regions of China. Due to the impact of such exchanges, Chinese Buddhist imagery took on the naturalism of Indian Gupta and post-Gupta period sculpture.
According to the inscription written on the front and right sides of this miniature shrine, the sculpture was produced in 659 (Xianqing 4) and depicts an Amitābha (Ch. Amituo, J. Amida) triad. Amitābha typically appears with his hands in the meditation mudra with the thumb and fingers touching or in the welcoming mudra performed when receiving devotees on their deathbeds. The central Amitābha image in this triad, however, is depicted with the left hand touching the ground in the earth-touching mudra. This mudra derives from a gesture Śakyamuni Buddha made in order to repel demons when he was attempting to attain enlightenment. The mudra on this image is notable in that it indicates that the mudras of Amitābha had not yet been standardized at the time of this sculpture’s production.