Unkei (1148-1223) was a Japanese sculptor sometimes called the Michelangelo of Buddhism. The earliest work that can be attributed to him with certainty is a statue of the Buddha dated 1176. Like all his later works this statue exhibits a realism and vigor unknown in Japanese art previously. In 1203 Unkei collaborated with several other master sculptors and their apprentices to produce his greatest work, two huge wooden statues of temple guardians to be placed in the gate house of the great Todai-ji temple in Nara. Pieces were carved separately and then assembled.
Called kongorikishi in Japanese, such guardians are, according to Mahayana tradition, manifestations of Vajrapani, a yakkha who used to protect the Buddha, his guardian angle, if you like. Vajrapani is very occasionally mentioned in the Pali Tipitaka, e.g. (D.I,95; M.I,231). In later Indian Buddhism most temples would have statues of these yakkhas in at their gates, and this tradition was transmitted to China, Korea and Japan.
In about 1210 Unkei made carved a statue of Maitreya flanked by two bodhisattvas and two arahats. These statues were so beautiful and so lifelike that they evoked wonder in all who saw them. Unkei was not just an artist of great skill he was also a deeply devote Buddhist. Records tell of him copying out three manuscripts of the Saddharmapundrika Sutra in 1186. In the colophon of one of these manuscripts he wrote that each evening he tallied up how many words he had written out that day and then bow to the sutra that many times.
Unkei' s fame has endured right up to today. In 2008 a Buddha statue made by him sold at Christi's in New York for US $14.37 million.