Depicting a youthful bodhisattva in all of the finery of an Indian prince, this exquisitely carved bust demonstrates the masterful artistry of the sculptors of the ancient region of Gandhara. Although the lower body is missing, the proportions of the remaining torso indicate it was once larger than life-sized. Bodhisattvas are those who have achieved enlightenment, but forgo nirvana in order to compassionately serve suffering, sentient beings. In Mahayana Buddhism, once prominently practiced in the ancient region of Gandhara, cult images of bodhisattvas became an important dimension of local worship, most commonly depicting Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of Compassion, and Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future, as well as images of the Buddha himself. Images of Avalokiteshvara and Maitreya can typically be distinguished iconographically: Avalokiteshvara is often depicted with a flower in hand and donning a turban, while Maitreya frequently carries a water pot and wears his hair fastened into a top knot or with curled locks adorned with a diadem. While the identification of this bust cannot be certain without the lower half of the figure, it appears with some confidence to be a representation of Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future.
The naturalistically modeled features of this bodhisattva, characteristic of the Gandharan period, draw from the Hellenistic influences radiating from the earlier Graeco-Bactrian Kingdom (150-130 BC) in the region. Centuries of refinement and syncretism with successive South Asian empires resulted in an internationally influenced sculptural style, at the pinnacle of sophistication around the second to fourth centuries of the Common Era. The facial features here are both naturalistic and idealized, creating a pensive expression as Maitreya looks down on his devotees. His stylized curls are partially gathered into a top knot and adorned with pearls and gems, with thick locks of hair falling onto his right shoulder. The figure’s torso is sculpted to the ideal human proportions and dressed in intricately carved jewelry and amulet cases. The monastic robe clings to his left shoulder, but does not conceal his muscular form as it bulks into folds across his arm. The intact nimbus establishes a pleasing symmetry, balancing the sculpture even without its lower half.
This representation can be compared to other figures of bodhisattvas believed to be Maitreya. A standing figure at the Norton Simon Museum survives in its near complete form (F.1975.04.1.S), with major losses only at his hands and presumptive water pot. While the Norton Simon example is smaller in scale, the figure is styled in a similarly positioned robe and jewelry set, hinting at a close resemblance of what the present bust once resembled in full. A comparably monumental figure of a bodhisattva was sold at Christie’s New York on 13 September 2016, lot 229. Despite only being a fragment of the original sculpture, the wondrously preserved details of this bust, from the talismanic armlet on Maitreya’s right bicep to the perfectly defined creases in his facial brow line, mark this piece as an important and impressive rendering of early Buddhist art.