The ushnisha, or cranial protuberance on top of the head symbolizing the expanded wisdom gained at enlightenment, identifies this magnificent sculpture as an image of the Buddha, as do the small snail-shell curls of hair, elongated earlobes and monk's robe. Seated in a yogic pose with legs crossed, the Buddha holds his right hand in front of his chest in a teaching mudra while resting his left hand on his left knee. (A ritual hand gesture, a mudra symbolizes a particular action, attitude, or power of a deity.) The positioning of the fingers--the middle and ring fingers of the right hand forming a circle with the thumb while the index and little fingers point upward, the left hand arranged in like manner with the middle and ring fingers forming a circle with the thumb while the index and little fingers point outward--identifies this sculpture as the Amitabha Buddha (Chinese, Emituofo), the Buddha of Infinite Light, who presides over the Western Paradise. In those mudra in which fingers form a circle with the thumb, the particular fingers touching the thumb indicate the level of paradise on which Amitabha is preaching (or, in other instances, the level of paradise on which Amitabha is meditating).
The best-known Buddhist sculptures from the Dali kingdom (937-1253), in Yunnan province, in the southwest of China, are the slender, slightly attenuated, gilt-bronze images of Avalokiteshvara (Chinese, Guanyin) that are often termed "Luck of Yunnan." One of these figures is illustrated by Denise P. Leidy, Donna Strahan, et al. in Wisdom Embodied: Chinese Buddhist and Daoist Sculpture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2010, pp. 136-38, no. 32. Even rarer are large images of the Buddha from the Dali kingdom, such as this exceptional example.
Inheritors of Tang-dynasty traditions, the contemporaneous Dali and Liao (916-1125) kingdoms both promoted Buddhism and both created sculptures, the styles of which descended from those of the Tang dynasty (618-907). As a result, Liao and Dali sculptures are closely related in style and general appearance; in fact, in earlier times, the very rare Dali sculptures often were mistaken for the more commonly seen Liao sculptures, as Buddha images from both kingdoms typically have heads that are large in proportion to their shoulders and wide, domical ushnisha that are sometimes embellished with a semicircular ornament at the front, as this seated Amitabha has a gilded florette.
Even so, the alert, fully open, almond-shaped eyes that look directly outward--in contrast to the large, heavily lidded eyes of Tang and some Liao sculptures, which look downward, appear half-closed and convey an attitude of inner reflection--point to this sculpture's origins in the Dali kingdom. In addition, as it crosses over the left shoulder and descends to the abdomen, the edge of the Buddha's robe falls in an undulating, S-curve configuration that is characteristic of Buddha images from the Dali kingdom; as it folds back on itself, that same robe edge typically overlaps and sometimes partially obscures the underlying drapery folds in the area just below the left shoulder, another characteristic of Dali-kingdom images of the Buddha.
This Buddha is very similar in style to an Amitabha Buddha seated in meditation in the Cleveland Museum of Art (fig. 1). Formerly attributed to the Liao kingdom, the Cleveland Buddha has now been assigned to the Dali kingdom on the basis of its similarity to a Buddha in the Shanghai Museum, which bears an inscription dating it to 1043 (i.e., the second year of the Shengming reign of the Dali kingdom); the resemblance of the present Buddha to the Shanghai and Cleveland sculptures suggests a mid-eleventh century date for this magnificent Buddha. See Sun Di, ed., Zhongguo liushi haiwai fojiao zaoxiang zonghe tulu (A compendium of Chinese Buddhist sculptures in overseas collections), vol. 7, Beijing, 2005, p. 1375. The Cleveland sculpture is also illustrated in the Handbook of the Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, 1978, p. 225, no. 42.1082. The present sculpture also relates closely to one pictured in J.J. Lally & Co., Early Dynastic China: Works of Art from Shang to Song, 1996, New York, no. 17; one in the Williams College Museum of Art, illustrated by Sherman E. Lee and Wai-kam Ho in Chinese Art Under the Mongols: The Yüan Dynasty (1279-1368), Cleveland Museum of Art, 1998, no. 13 (fig. 2); and one illustrated in The Crucible of Compassion and Wisdom: Special Exhibition Catalog of the Buddhist Bronzes from Nitta Group Collection at the National Palace Museum, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1987, p. 185, pl. 89.