By Culture24 Reporter | 03 March 2016 | Updated: 29 February 2016
Object of the Week: This week it’s a 1,400-year-old, 19-foot Buddha which has just taken up residence on the centre well of the North Stairs at the British Museum
The Amitābha Buddha is colossal. It stands 5.78 metres tall on a lotus base, and its hands, which are now lost, would have been raised palm-outward (the right one, in the Buddhist gesture of reassurance) and in the spirit of liberality (the left one – a gesture known as varada mudra).
An inscription on the plinth reveals its original location more than 1,400 years ago: Chongguang Temple, in what was then Hancui Village, set within the Hebei Province of Northern China.
Conservators used in-situ scaffolding to examine the sharp relief carving, flat folds drapery and flat back of the Buddha, tending to it for the first time in more than 25 years. Their work means the inscription can be read for the first time, with 80 members of the Yi-yi – a Buddhist society popular during the northern dynasties – named on it.
The society also built two white marble bodhisattvas, one of which is now in Japan. The wood in the left arm of the Buddha, according to electron microscope scans, comes from the jujube tree, which has been widely cultivated for more than 4,000 years in China and is known for its edible, vitamin C-rich fruits.
A group of British collectors originally displayed the Buddha in the International Exhibition of Chinese Art, hosted at the Royal Academy between November 28 1935 and March 7 1936 to meet growing international enthusiasm for art from China.
It had been sent to the Royal Academy by CT Loo, a prominent art dealer of Chinese origin, who gifted the Buddha to the Chinese Government. The British Museum received it as a donation in 1938.