Maitreya, the Future Buddha, whose name means loving kindness, is one of eight special transcendent students of the Buddha Shakyamuni in Mahayana Buddhism, known as the “heart-sons”. Residing in the celestial paradise of Tushita-heaven, Maitreya has postponed becoming a complete Buddha until all sentient beings are liberated from samsara, the cycle of death and rebirth.
This large and exceptionally fine image of Maitreya epitomizes the sensitivity of modeling and graceful beauty of Licchavi period sculpture. Originating in Northern Bihar, the Licchavi aesthetic was deeply rooted in North Indian artistic traditions. Characterized by soft rounded modeling and languid forms, the Sarnath style of sculpture from the Gupta period had an immense influence on Nepalese art.
Here Maitreya is depicted seated in lalitasana, atop a double-lotus base with his left foot resting gently on a blossoming lotus flower. He holds a rosary in his right hand and a water vessel in his left. An antelope skin is gently draped over his left forearm, a rare departure from the more common depiction of the skin draped over the shoulder. His lithe body is clad in a thin sash and a patterned dhoti fastened with a jeweled belt. He wears a beaded necklace around his neck and a sacred thread over his left shoulder. His heavy-lidded gaze suggests a deeply meditative state. Resting in his thickly plaited coiffure is a miniature stupa, a further attribute of Maitreya.
Exceptional in both size and quality, there are few close comparables to the Ellsworth Maitreya. Stylistically, the sculpture relates to a figure of an eleventh-century standing Maitreya, previously in the collection of J.J. Klejman which, like the present work, shows the Licchavi emphasis on a rounded soft body and subtlety of movement (P. Pal, Art of Nepal, 1985, p. 100, fig S20). The Klejman example appears to be delicately stepping forward, while the Ellsworth sculpture seems to be gently gesturing to the viewer, emanating tenderness and grace.
The observation of naturalism as found in the lithe body and rounded facial features of the present work create a palpable suppleness. The gentle drape of the sash down the back of the figure’s shoulder and the open-work base incised with circles symbolizing a lotus pod, give the work an intimacy and tactility that is the hallmark of the finest Licchavi bronze work. It is undoubtedly for this reason that Mr. Ellsworth placed this cherished work at the entrance to the living room, where it would have provided compelling subject matter for the evening’s conversation.