A fine and rare gilt-bronze figure of Maitreya Yongle six-character mark and of the period

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Lot 7
A fine and rare gilt-bronze figure of Maitreya
Yongle six-character mark and of the period

Sold for HK$ 3,960,000 (US$ 508,247) inc. premium
A fine and rare gilt-bronze figure of Maitreya
Yongle six-character mark and of the period
The finely cast and richly gilt bodhisattva depicted seated cross-legged in vajraparyankasana with hands in dharmachakra mudra, adorned in a long flowing robe draped around the arms and legs, with a well-defined waist
and broad shoulders, the aristocratic face with a downward benevolent gaze and smile, the hair coiled up in a seven-part chignon, the stems of lotus flowers curled between his thumbs and forefingers, a kundika (the symbol of the Buddha of the Future) resting on the flower head on his right shoulder, a single blossom on his left shoulder, the bodhisattva jewellery comprising a magnificent crown, an elaborate tripartite necklace, wheel-shaped earrings attached to the elongated earlobes, armbands, a jewelled girdle and anklets, bracelets and feet jewellery, the six-character mark engraved on the upper surface of the waisted lotus pedestal, the base engraved with a visvavajra.
21cm (8½in) high.


  • Provenance: an English private collection

    This magnificent gilt-bronze figure of Maitreya represents the height of perfection of Buddhist bronzes cast in the Imperial foundries in Beijing during the reign of the Yongle Emperor.

    The Yongle emperor (1403-24) had a very close affinity to Tibetan Buddhism and revered the high lamas of all the major sects. Tibetan Buddhism had become influential under the Yuan dynasty, which utilised it to cement its sphere of influence over Tibet. Under the Yongle emperor, imperial patronage was extended. In the first year of his reign, he invited the Fifth Karmapa to Beijing to perform funeral rites for his parents. Throughout his reign, numerous Buddhist images cast in Beijing were sent as gifts to high-ranking Tibetan lamas and dignitaries. The remoteness of the Tibetan plateau, combined with the reverence in which these Buddhist images were held and preserved in the numerous monasteries, provided the perfect environment for their survival prior to the Communist invasion of Tibet.

    According to Ulrich von Schroeder in his seminal work surveying the holdings of the major monasteries in Tibet, Buddhist Sculptures in Tibet, Hong Kong, 2001, fifty-four inscribed Yongle gilt-bronzes have been identified, most of which are in the Potala Palace. A comparatively smaller number of Yongle inscribed bronzes from the former Imperial collection is preserved in the major museums of Taipei and Beijing, of which many were presented as gifts by high lamas to the Qianlong Emperor in the second half of the 18th century.

    As von Schroeder points out, ibid., although created in the Imperial foundries in Beijing, this group of Yongle inscribed bronzes appears to be part of a new tradition which developed at the beginning of the 15th century under the influence of Nepali and Tibetan craftsmen working in central and southern Tibet. Sculptures such as this one present strong stylistic parallels to the illustrations printed in the Chinese edition of the Tibetan bJhal-hgyur, published in Beijing in 1410, which is similar to the Tibetan manuscript edition made in Nar-thang, Southern Tibet, between 1312 and 1320.

    The current figure of Maitreya combines the Tibetan love of ornaments, as seen through the abundant and luxurious jewellery, with Chinese characteristics such as the delicacy of detail and the elegant casting. The figure’s well-defined waist and broad shoulders exemplify Indo-Nepalese traditions that were first introduced into China during the Yuan dynasty and soon after served as the foundation for the Sino-Tibetan style of the following centuries. Additionally, its naturalistic flowing robe, echoed by the playful carving of the fingers, the gentle outlines and the lack of inlay in semi-precious stones on the surface of the bronze illustrate the Chinese taste of the early 15th century.

    In the Mahayanan Buddhist tradition, Maitreya is a bodhisattva who has chosen to remain in the world with the compassionate determination to aid all beings on their quest for enlightenment. He is expected to come to earth from Tusita, to be a successor of the historic Sakyamuni Buddha, or Buddha of the Future. The prophecy of the arrival of Maitreya is found in the canonical literature of all Buddhist sects (Theravāda, Mahāyāna, and Vajrayāna) and is accepted by most Buddhists as a statement about an actual event that will take place in the distant future.

    From the Sui dynasty onwards, challenges to Imperial authority were frequently carried out by insurgents claiming to be the incarnation of Maitreya. The most significant insurgency in living memory during the Yongle period was the White Lotus Rebellion, initiated by Han Shantong of the White Lotus Society, and Army Commander Liu Futong against the Mongols of the Yuan dynasty in 1351. The anti-Mongol slogan 'The empire is in utter chaos. Maitreya Buddha has incarnated', appealed to the patriotism of the Han Chinese. Han Shantong referred to himself as Ming Wang ('King of Brightness'), a name which was adopted by Zhu Yuanzhang, the successor of the rebellion, when he defeated the Mongols and proclaimed himself the Hongwu Emperor of the Ming Dynasty.

    The respect in which Maitreya was held by the early Ming emperors was therefore particularly acute, and this may account for why gilt-bronze figures of Maitreya are rarer and more highly prized than those of other Bodhisattvas.In contrast to Yongle inscribed gilt-bronzes in the form of other Bodhisattvas, there are very few recorded figures in the form of Maitreya. As Ulrich von Schroeder points out in Buddhist Sculptures in Tibet, Hong Kong, 2001, p.1246, of the fifty-four surviving Yongle inscribed gilt-bronzes in Tibet, there is only one figure of Maitreya, preserved in the collection of the Jokhang Temple, Lhasa, the most sacred and important temple in Tibet, illustrated, ibid., p.1251, pl. 343F.

    Another closely related example of Maitreya is illustrated by the Chang Foundation, Buddhist images in gilt metal, Taipei, 1993, p. 59, pl. 22; and another Maitreya was formerly in the Benjamin J. Stein Collection, illustrated by Ulrich Von Schroeder, Indo-Tibetan Bronzes, Hong Kong, 1981, p. 523, pl. 147E. See also a Yongle gilt-bronze seated figure of Maitreya sold at Sotheby’s New York, 21 September 2007, lot 34, and a standing figure from the Speelman collection, sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 7 October 2006, lot 803.

    明永樂 鎏金銅彌勒菩薩坐像 《大明永樂年施》楷書橫款
A fine and rare gilt-bronze figure of Maitreya Yongle six-character mark and of the period
A fine and rare gilt-bronze figure of Maitreya Yongle six-character mark and of the period
A fine and rare gilt-bronze figure of Maitreya Yongle six-character mark and of the period
A fine and rare gilt-bronze figure of Maitreya Yongle six-character mark and of the period
A fine and rare gilt-bronze figure of Maitreya Yongle six-character mark and of the period
A fine and rare gilt-bronze figure of Maitreya Yongle six-character mark and of the period
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