Essay by Shin Soyeon
Exhibited in the Buddhist Sculpture Gallery of the National Museum of Korea, this Maitreya Bodhisattva (National Treasure 81) and Amitabha Buddha (National Treasure 82) from Gamsansa Temple are two representative examples of Unified Silla Buddhist sculpture of the early eighth century. Furthermore, both sculptures have an inscription on the back of the halo, providing many details about their production. The inscription on the Maitreya Bodhisattva includes 381 Chinese characters, while the one on the Amitabha Buddha has 392 characters. Parts of these inscriptions are quoted by Iryeon a monk of the late Goryeo period, in the “Mt. Namwol” (南月山條) section from Volume 3 of Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms (三國遺事). As such, these two statues must have been regarded as important Buddhist sculptures at the time of production.
Life of Kim Jiseong and production of the statues
According to the sculptures’ inscriptions, on “Nirvana Day” (February 15) in the eighteenth year of the reign of King Seongdeok (719), a high-ranking Silla official named Kim Jiseong commissioned the construction of Gamsansa Temple and the production of these statues in dedication to his deceased parents. Kim Jiseong’s official rank was “Jungachan,” the sixth-highest rank of the seventeen ranks of Silla.
In 705, Kim traveled to the Tang Dynasty as part of a Silla mission. The inscriptions mention his position as “Sangsa,” a title that he must have received from the Tang court. However, he did not complete his political aspirations, and resigned from government service in 718 at the age of sixty-seven. He then retired to an idyllic and peaceful life of solitude, following in the footsteps of famous recluses such as Laozi and Zhuangzi. At the same time, he pursued an in-depth study of Buddha’s teachings by reading the Yogacarabhumi Sastra by Asaṅga. In 719, he earnestly donated his fortune to build Gamsansa Temple, before he died in 720 at the age of sixty-nine.
According to the inscriptions, the Maitreya Bodhisattva sculpture was dedicated to Kim Jiseong’s mother and the Amitabha Buddha sculpture was dedicated to his father. The inscriptions also record that the ashes of Kim’s mother (who died at the age of sixty-six) and father (who died at the age of forty-seven) were scattered by the shore of Heunji (欣支) on the East Sea. In addition, the inscriptions wish for the longevity and fortune of the king, and for Gaewon Ichan (愷元伊湌, the son of King Muyeol), Kim Jiseong’s brothers and sisters, his wives, and all sentient beings of the world to attain Buddhahood. These details were quoted in Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms.
According to the inscriptions, the Maitreya Bodhisattva and Amitabha Buddha were produced in 719. However, there are some notable differences in the writing style of the inscriptions. For example, the inscription on the Amitabha Buddha uses more honorific language to refer to Kim Jiseong. It also says that the inscription was composed by Nama Chong (奈麻 聰) by the king’s order, and transcribed by Monk Gyeongyung (京融) and Kim Chiwon (金驟源). Finally, the last line of the inscription states that Kim Jiseong died on April 22, 720, at the age of sixty-nine. Therefore, the Maitreya Bodhisattva was produced during Kim Jiseong’s lifetime, while the Amitabha Buddha was completed after his death.
Interestingly, the two inscriptions also use different spellings of Kim Jiseong’s name in Chinese characters: “金志誠” on the Maitreya Bodhisattva, and “金志全” on the Amitabha Buddha. There are also differences in the spellings of his brother’s name (“良誠” on Maitreya Bodhisattva and “梁誠” on Amitabha Buddha) and his sister’s name (“古巴里” on Maitreya Bodhisattva and “古寶里” on Amitabha Buddha). These spelling differences indicate that homonymous Chinese characters were used at the time, and that the inscriptions were written by different people.
Stylistic characteristics of two Buddhist statues
These two statues have great significance for scholars, because they demonstrate how the Buddhist sculptures of Unified Silla developed during the eighth century. Some of the features, such as the thick eyelids and wide face, continue the long tradition of Buddhist sculpture from the Three Kingdoms period. Despite their large size and weight, the figures still convey a surprisingly serene impression. However, the dynamic, three-dimensional depiction of the body with expansive volume—exemplified by Seokguram Grotto of the mid-eighth century—has not yet been realized, perhaps because the sculptors wished to highlight the front of the sculptures as the focus of worship and rituals. The staid impression is further conveyed by the tight placement of the arms and hands against the body, almost as if they are constricted by invisible bonds. Overall, however, the sculptures show a more delicate, pious, and refined style than earlier works, reflecting the sculptors’ familiarity with the latest aesthetic changes.
The more voluminous of the two sculptures is Maitreya Bodhisattva, who is adorned in an array of exotic clothing and accessories, including a resplendent crown, double necklaces, a long ornamental cloth hanging down the chest and arms, a delicately carved ornament on the arms, and a skirt folded around the waist, decorated with jewels. These ornate accessories, along with the voluptuous and sensuous body, follow the overall trend of East Asian Buddhist sculpture at the time.
In fact, the depiction of the jewels, ornamental cloth, clothing, and pose of the Maitreya Bodhisattva resembles an eleven-faced Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva from the Tang Dynasty (attributed to Baoqingsi Temple in Xian, China) and an eleven-faced Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva from Japan’s Horyuji Temple (not pictured here). However, the Maitreya Bodhisattva from Gamsansa Temple also features some very unique details, such as the standing pose and the crown with a tiny Buddha (associated specifically with Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva). Furthermore, Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms documents this sculpture as “Maitreya Bodhisattva, the deity for the main hall of the temple.” Thus, it is estimated that the Maitreya Bodhisattva had a place of great prominence at the temple.
The Amitabha Buddha from Gamsansa Temple wears an outer robe that covers both shoulders, with creases that ripple symmetrically downward, clearly expressing the curves of the body and highlighting the sense of volume. Overall, the sculpture resembles a standing Buddha made of sandstone that is housed at Gyeongju National Museum, as well as the Buddha image on the south side of the four-sided boulder at the site of Gulbulsa Temple and some other gilt-bronze standing Buddhas. All of these sculptures reflect the style of Buddhist sculpture from China’s Tang Dynasty, which originated from Gupta, India. This style was transmitted to China by Tang monks who made pilgrimages to India and returned home with sculptures. Through China, the style then made its way to Unified Silla. Although this Amitabha Buddha does not have the three-dimensional form associated with Buddhist sculpture of the mid-eighth century, the sense of voluptuousness and dynamic realism shows that the sculptors recognized and had begun to apply the new aesthetic trends of the time.
As representative works of Buddhist sculpture from the early eighth century, this Maitreya Bodhisattva and Amitabha Buddha from Gamsansa Temple deliver vital information about the Silla culture and the relationship between Buddhist faith and Buddhist art. As such, they are important artifacts for understanding the trajectory of Korean art history. Above all, they embody the devout Buddhist faith of Kim Jiseong, who generously built Gamsansa Temple, made these two statues, and shared his virtuous deeds with others. Such a touching gesture has instilled these two statues with palpable warmth that we can still feel today, as if they are the true manifestations of Amitabha Buddha and Maitreya Bodhisattva.
Read this essay and learn more on The National Museum of Korea’s website.
Shin Soyeon, “Reexamination of the Inscriptions on the Maitreya and Amitabha Statues from Gamsansa Temple through Reflectance Transformation Imaging,” Journal of Korean Art & Archaeology 13 (2019): pp. 104–123.