Although gilt bronze Buddhist sculptures from Korea’s Silla Kingdom are well-known, ones from Korea’s Baekje Kingdom (c. 18 BC–AD 660) are rare and thus are only sparsely represented in museum and private collections. Among the few Baekje sculptures to come to market in recent years, this well-known, gilt bronze standing Buddha is important for its beauty and rarity, as well as for its contribution in expanding our understanding of the full spectrum of sculpture produced during Korea’s Three Kingdoms period. Matsubara Saburo (1918–1999), the eminent, twentieth-century specialist in Chinese and Korean Buddhist sculpture, examined this Baekje Buddha and published it in his monumental 1985 study of Korean gilt bronzes.
The earliest Korean Buddhist sculptures, which date to the late fourth or early fifth century, occur in gilt bronze and fired clay and closely follow contemporaneous Chinese models. By the seventh century, however, distinctive Korean styles and iconographic types had emerged as evinced by the world-renowned gilt bronze sculpture representing the Pensive Bodhisattva Maitreya (National Treasure no. 83; museum no. Deoksu 3312) now in the collection of the National Museum of Korea, Seoul.
This sculpture represents a Buddha standing with his weight evenly distributed on both legs, his right hand raised, his left hand lowered. “Buddha” means “the Enlightened One” and refers to an individual who has attained enlightenment and entered into nirvana. In fact, the Buddha’s diagnostic iconographic symbol is the ushnisha, that is, the cranial protuberance atop his head that emblemizes the expanded wisdom that he gained at his enlightenment. Presented in the guise of a monk, the Buddha generally is depicted with a single head, two arms, and two legs; he may be shown standing or seated and always displays a benevolent countenance. He wears a monk’s robes and may be shown either barefoot or with sandals. Buddhas typically are portrayed without jewelry, though particular manifestations of the Buddha may wear crowns and other jewelry, particularly those Buddhas associated with the mandala. His distended earlobes, which resulted from the heavy earrings that he wore in his youth as a crown prince, symbolize his rejection of worldly life and his embrace of the religious life. He may be represented with a shaven pate, as in the present sculpture, or with short hair arranged in wavy locks or in small, snail-shell curls. The sacred texts, or sutras, state that he bears the “Thirty-two Marks of a Great Man”; among those marks, the ones typically portrayed are the urna, or circular mark at the center of the forehead, the webbed fingers and toes, and the previously mentioned ushnisha. Gilding not only makes the image suitable for presentation to a deity but symbolizes the light that, according to the sutras, radiates from his body, another of the marks of a great man. The tenon projecting from the back of the head indicates that a mandorla originally backed this sculpture; the mandorla rested on the top of the flat lotus base, just behind the feet, and was held in place by the tenon at the back of the head. The mandorla amplified the light radiating from the Buddha’s body and thus further accentuated his divine status.
Although they bear a superficial resemblance to those from the Silla Kingdom, sculptures from Baekje stand apart due to their distinctive faces, robes, and bases. The heads of Baekje Buddhas typically are large in proportion to the body, for example, just as the shoulders are narrow in relation to the head. Baekje Buddhas often are shown with a shaven pate, as revealed by the present Buddha as well as by the small stone seated, meditating Buddha from Gunsu-ri, Buyeo, now in the collection of the National Museum of Korea, Seoul (M-000435-00003), and by the famous rock-cut Buddhist Triad at Seosan in South Chungcheong province. Rather distinctively, the mouth of Baekje Buddhas is often unusually wide, as in this sculpture, resulting in a rather square chin. In addition, the ushnisha, nose, and eyes of Baekje Buddhas tend to be large, as witnessed by both the present sculpture and the Buddha in the Seosan Triad; in fact, the large, wide, domical ushnisha, which was influenced by Chinese sculptures produced the Northern Qi dynasty (550–577), anticipates the style of the Unified Silla period and points to a date during the first half of the seventh century as this sculpture’s date of manufacture.
In Baekje Buddhas, the outer robe—i.e., the sanghati—usually covers both shoulders and falls to the ankles in repeating, concentric, U-shaped folds, reflecting influence from Chinese sculpture of the Northern Qi and Sui (581–618) dynasties. The bottom edge of the lower robe—i.e., the antaravasaka, or dhoti-like garment that drapes the hips and legs—appears at the ankles, immediately below the edge of the outer robe, but the inner robe—the uttarasanga that traditionally covers the left shoulder and diagonally crosses the chest—frequently is entirely concealed and thus not visible, as in this sculpture.
Unlike many early Korean sculptures, this Buddha retains its original base. As evinced by this example, the bases of Baekje Buddhas often assume the form of an inverted lotus blossom; in fact, the blossom is right side up, rather than inverted, but its petals project downward, thereby exposing the conical seedpod on which the Buddha stands. As in this sculpture, Baekje bases sometimes include an unembellished ring at the bottom.