Amitabha triad

Artist: Unidentified Artist

Period: Goryeo dynasty (918–1392)

Date: ca. 13th century

Culture: Korea

Medium: Hanging scroll; ink, color and gold on silk

Dimensions: Image: 45 1/4 x 23 1/4 in. (114.9 x 59.1 cm)
Overall with mounting: 83 1/4 x 31 1/2 in. (211.5 x 80 cm)
Overall with knobs: 83 1/4 x 34 in. (211.5 x 86.4 cm)

Classification: Paintings

Credit Line: Rogers Fund, 1930

Accession Number: 30.76.298


The Buddha Amitabha (A'mita) was the focal image of worship in Pure Land Buddhism, a devotional sect that enjoyed great popularity in Korea during the Koryō dynasty. Devotees were assured personal salvation and rebirth in Amitabha's Western Paradise upon faithful recitation of his name. Here, Amitabha, encircled by a large mandorla (aureole) and with a golden nimbus (halo) surrounding his head, is shown seated on an elaborate lotus throne. He wears a red monastic robe embellished with patterns painted in gold. On his chest is a svastika, an auspicious symbol representing Buddhist teaching; on his palms and the sole of his one visible foot are chakra (wheel) motifs, symbolizing the ever-turning dharma (law).

Amitabha's identity is established by his hand gesture, the dharmachakramudra, representing the preaching of the Buddhist law, and by the presence of the bodhisattvas Avalokiteshvara (Kwanūm), on his left, and Mahasthamaprapta (Tae Seji), on his right. Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion and wisdom, holds a bottle of sacred water (kundika) in his left hand and a willow branch in his right. In the center of his crown is a tiny image of Amitabha, his spiritual master. Mahasthamaprapta, who symbolizes Amitabha's wisdom and helps people realize the importance of seeking enlightenment, holds in his right hand a rectangular object with a red ribbon; a tiny "precious bottle" appears in his crown.

The three figures are arranged as a triad—a long-established format that can be found in India several centuries earlier and appears in Korean Buddhist sculpture by at least the sixth century. Amitabha, the most important figure and the subject of veneration and meditation, is depicted larger in size and frontally posed, occupying the apex of the triangle formed by the three deities. The slender, tapered figures of the two attendant bodhisattvas, shown standing on lotus pedestals below him in three-quarter view and in a gentle thrice-bent (tribhanga) posture, are in marked contrast to Amitabha's powerful presence.

The figures are fluently drawn in cinnabar red. Their facial features are differentiated: the face of the Buddha is broad, while the youthful faces of the bodhisattvas are elongated. The long, narrow eyes of the Buddha contrast with the almond-shaped eyes of his attendants. On all three figures, the eyebrows, executed meticulously with fine individual brushstrokes, reveal the hand of a master painter. The figures' sumptuous garments are embellished in gold with motifs of cranes among clouds (on Amitabha's inner garment, visible on the right sleeve), lotus medallions (on his outer robe, covering his shoulders and draped across his left arm), composite chrysanthemum or floral roundels (on the bodhisattvas' translucent robes), and various types of plant scrolls (on the borders of the figures' garments).