Gilt-bronze figures of this quality of casting and complexity of detail are extremely rare and most certainly the finest luxury commissions technically attempted during the tenth or early eleventh century. The present figure, with its unusually large size and distinctive costume of cloud-collar, armored breastplate and elaborately knotted tassels, appears therefore to be among the finest extant Liao gilt-bronzes, and may have originally sat upon a separate larger lotus pedestal or animal vehicle.
The treatment of the drapery and the headdress on this figure is highly unusual. The headdress appears to be adorned in the center with either a pagoda or a jewel raised on a plinth, for which there appears to be no parallels. The likely interpretation of this figure is that of an incarnation of Avalokitesvara (Guanyin), the most popular and venerated Buddhist deity of the period, or of Maitreya. Compare the rare large gilt-bronze figure of Avalokitesvara in lalitasana 'royal ease' posture, now preserved in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in Zhongguo meishu quanji; Diaosu bian; Wudai Song diaosu (The Great Treasury of Chinese Fine Arts; Sculpture; Five Dynasties and Song Sculpture) Beijing, 1988, vol. 5, no. 146, which bears very similar facial features, relative size and complexity of ornamentation and drapery as the present figure. The Palace Museum bodhisattva appears to bear an inscription dated to AD 1008, and is discussed by M. Gridley, Chinese Buddhist Sculpture under the Liao, New Delhi, 1993, pl. 147 and pp. 162-63.
Most Liao gilt-bronzes as finely executed as the present bodhisattva are, however, much smaller in scale, as they are cast with integral lotus pedestals, and a few are further supported on cabriole-legged stands; compare a very fine and rare Manjusri (Ch. Wenshu) with five-knotted hairstyle and similar cloud-collar costume, formerly in the collection of Laurence Sickman, and now in the Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City, illustrated ibid., pls. 144 (a & b) and 153, as well as several others, pl. 149, in the British Museum, London, pl. 152, in the Shanghai Museum, and pl. 154, in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Compare, also, one formerly in the Chang Foundation, exhibited Buddhist Images in Gilt Metal, Taipei, 1993, no. 64.
The overall proportions of the present figure's elegantly tapering waist, broad shoulders and large rounded head with crisp full lips, are extremely similar to those of the important stucco figures in the Preservation of Sutras Hall, Lower Avatamsaka Temple (Xia Huayan Si), Datong, Shanxi province, dedicated in 1038AD; see ibid., pls. 1 and 3, which are illustrated in greater detail, Hua Yan Si, Beijing, 1980, pls. 39-43, or Zhongguo meishu quanji; Diaosu bian; Wudai Song diaosu (The Great Treasury of Chinese Fine Arts; Sculpture; Five Dynasties and Song Sculpture) Beijing, 1988, vol. 5, nos. 137-41. In particular, the larger seated bodhisattvas flanking the central Sakyamuni Buddha at Huayan Temple are clothed in almost identical cloud-collars and curling breastplates (Fig. 1) as the present figure, as are related bodhisattvas on the upper storeys of the Mu Pagoda, Yingxian, Shanxi province, dedicated in AD1056, see Gridley, op.cit., pls. 40 and 41. For a rare example in stone, almost 5 feet high and clothed in similar fashion, in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, see O. Sirèn, Chinese Sculpture from the Fifth to the Fourteenth Century, vol. II, London, 1925, pl. 570. It is also interesting to note that such a distinctive costume may have been derived from late Tang dynasty iconography. Compare the clothing of large stucco figures of Manjusri riding lions in the Fo Guang Temple and Nanchan Temple, at the famous Wutaishan complex, Shanxi province, dedicated in AD 687; illustrated in Buddhist Sculpture of Shanxi Province, Beijing, 1991, pls. 1, 2, 75 and 76.