5 minutes with… The Nitta Maitreya

Ruben Lien, Senior Specialist in Chinese Works of Art, delights in encountering in person for the first time an iconic early gilt-bronze sculpture of the Maitreya Buddha crafted some 1,400 years ago, offered in Hong Kong on 30 May

An extraordinary devotional object, this gilt-bronze statue dates to the 7th century and represents the Maitreya Buddha, ‘a symbol of a future saviour’, explains Ruben Lien, Senior Specialist in Chinese Works of Art at Christie’s Asia.

‘The concept of the Maitreya is very similar to the Messiah,’ adds the specialist. ‘At the end of time, the Maitreya is supposed to come down to earth from heaven to save mankind.’

Besides its symbolic value, the statue is also prized for its size and craftsmanship. ‘This is one of the largest gilt-bronze Buddhas that we’ve seen dating back to this period,’ says Lien. ‘In the Sui period in China, between 581 and 618, bronze-making was still not as advanced as it was in the High Tang period that followed [until 907].’

A highly important gilt-bronze figure of Maitreya Buddha, late Sui-Tang dynasty, early 7th century. 12¾ in (32.4 cm) high. Estimate on request. Offered in The Nitta Maitreya sale on 30 May at Christie’s Hong Kong

A highly important gilt-bronze figure of Maitreya Buddha, late Sui-Tang dynasty, early 7th century. 12¾ in (32.4 cm) high. Estimate on request. Offered in The Nitta Maitreya sale on 30 May at Christie’s Hong Kong

According to Lien, the early 7th century was a turbulent time in China, which makes a commission such as this extremely rare. This tells us that it must have been made for the royal family or someone very wealthy.

Originally the Buddha would have been placed in a devotional setting, sitting on a platform and surrounded by Bodhisattvas which would enhance the scale of the work.

‘This piece is very spiritual in its appearance,’ says Lien
‘This piece is very spiritual in its appearance,’ says Lien
‘It has a very calm expression, with peaceful, downcast eyes and a full face,’ adds the specialist

‘It has a very calm expression, with peaceful, downcast eyes and a full face,’ adds the specialist

‘This piece is very spiritual in its appearance,’ says Lien. ‘It has a very calm expression, with peaceful, downcast eyes and a full face. It’s a beautiful figure. I’ve frequently seen it published in books and catalogues and have always loved it.’

Its grace also stems from the craftsmanship employed in fashioning the drapery and figure. ‘It’s more slender, more elegant, and the drapery is much more fluid,’ explains Lien. ‘It has a very different aesthetic to the latter Tang figures, which are more opulent. This figure is spiritually a more powerful representation.’

The Buddha comes from the collection of Muneichi Nitta, a Taiwanese collector based in Japan. ‘He’s a very special collector,’ says Lien. Many of his pieces can now be seen in the Palace Museum in Taipei. But this work in particular stands out for the specialist. ‘It’s one of those iconic early sculptures that you always remember,’ he says. ‘It was amazing to see it in person for the first time.’