Buddha is represented standing, his legs slightly spread. The body is entirely concealed beneath the samghati (religious cloak), a characteristic of this period (although other sculpted images from the same period do pay attention to visual volume). The distinctly Chinese face with chubby cheeks and linked, arching eyebrows is quite different from the Gandharian morphology of the previous period. Although distanced from the Indian Buddhist canon, the facial expression, the gestures, and even the omnipresent folded rendering all reflect a harmonious effigy, in line with the Buddhist ideal. The figure is about to make the symbolic gesture of the Abhaya mudra, indicating freedom from fear: one hand raised with palm open, the other hanging down pointing to the ground as a vow. However, iconographic consideration has emphasized the importance of the usnisa, or protuberance on the top of the smooth-haired head, as well as the antaravasaka, the inner robe that almost entirely covers the torso.
Like most of the sculpted images from Yungang, this one was carved directly into the soft sandstone cave wall. Its size suggests that it may have formed part of the main altar, or that it may have belonged to the series of large votive images sculpted on the walls of the cella.
The earliest known sculpted images of Buddha in China date from slightly before the mid-5th century and were the work of the Toba or Northern Wei invaders (386-534). At the time, the main center was Yungang in northern Shaanxi province, where the many cave cella bear witness to a great wave of religious fervor. The rejection of these barbarians by the indigenous culture spurred the development of a non-Chinese religion as the spiritual foundation of their dynasty. Starting from a Gandharian canon, by the end of the 5th century the Buddhist art of the Northern Wei became formally sinicized on a stylistic level.