Although Buddhism reached China as early as the first century, it was not firmly established in northern China until the late fourth century, under the influence of the Northern Wei dynasty (386–535). Beginning at that time, numerous shrines and temples were adorned with depictions of the Buddha in various manifestations.
The Art Museum’s two sculptures (the other depicting Guanyin, 1952.111), which form a pair dating to the Northern Qi dynasty (550–77), depict bodhisattvas, Buddhist beings who have attained enlightenment but remain to aid mortals. The pair originally flanked an image of the Buddha Amituo, or the Buddha of Infinite Light, Lord of the Western Paradise or “Pure Land.”
The roundness of form and ornate embellishments typify the new sculptural style of the Northern Qi dynasty, influenced by the Gupta period (320–600) of India. Each figure is dressed in a pleated dhoti and richly adorned with jewelry. Although similar, the two bodhisattvas can be distinguished by their diademed headdresses: one is ornamented with a vase, while the other bears a Buddha figure representing Amituo. The vase emblem here identifies its wearer as Da Shizhi (Mahasthamaprapta), representative of Amituo’s power and wisdom, who greets those entering the Pure Land with a gesture of offering and veneration. The Buddha image (object 1952.111) marks its wearer as Guanyin (Avalokitesvara), the Bodhisattva of Compassion, who meets the faithful at their death and guides them to the world beyond. Pure Land doctrine offered rebirth into Amituo’s paradise to faithful individuals who called on the deity by name.