Buddhism was brought to Laos from the Khmer Empire, where Prince Fah Ngum was raised and educated. In 1353 he returned to Lanxiang and became king. He brought with him the Pra Bang, the prototype of all later Buddha images cast in Lanxiang, even though the influence of Sukothai and Lanna styles from neighboring Thailand replaced the Khmer style soon. Lao history can be divided in 2 main eras: The early or Lanxiang era from 1353 until it became a colony of Thailand in 1777 and the late era from 1777 until the beginning of French colonial rule in 1893. After that, Buddha images were rarely cast and the Art declined.
Until about 10 years ago, Lao Buddha images were not even recognized as an independent art, but rather classified as Northern Thai. In 2000 a book about Lao Buddha Images by Somkiart Lopecharat was published and scholars were alerted to the history and distinct style of the Lao Buddha image.
Lao Buddha images have always been influenced by folk art as well, which makes them more ?tribal? in appearance than their elegant Thai neighbors. One other feature that never changes through the periods is the big happy smile of the Lao Buddha.
The materials used for Lao Buddha images are almost exclusively bronze and wood. The Lao Buddha images can be divided in consecutive periods with distinct characteristics as follows:
Early Era, First period 1353 ? 1456. These early images are thick and heavy and show the beginning stages of craftsmen?s skills. Especially sitting images are disproportionate with wide laps, big hands and long arms
Early Era, Second period 1456 ? 1520, the craftsmanship developed, a Lao style emerges that blends Khmer, Sukothai and Lanna styles as well as Lao folk art. Buddhism and Buddhist Art flourish in Lanxiang as well as everywhere in Southeast Asia.
Early Era, Last period, 1520 ? 1777, also called the Golden Age. Lao craftsmanship has reached its peak and Lanxiang was prosperous and ruled by kings who spent money on promoting Buddhism. Many images were cast and precious metals used, especially a gold and copper alloy called ?nak?. The images are well proportioned, the earlier ones with oval faces and proportionate heads, the later ones with rounder faces and bigger heads. Due to Ayutthaya influence high pedestals become popular; their style is uniquely Lao though. Even the split of Lanxiang in 3 kingdoms (Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Champassak) didn?t interrupt the style of Buddha images.
Late Era, First period, 1778 ? 1827, Rattanakosin style had some influence on Lao Buddha images, because it was a colony of Thailand now. The faces became a younger look and a half smile, characteristically for Rattanakosin style
Late Era, Second period, 1827 ? 1893. After the destruction of Vientiane in 1827, a mix of different styles can be observed from imitations of the Lao Golden Age style to the imitation of Thai style and even western influences, so there is hardly a Lao identity recognizable in this period.
Lao Buddha images are still quite moderately priced. Since they are far rarer than Thai, Burmese and Khmer images, their prices will probably pick up soon. The Golden Age images are the most desirable. Prices are largely determined by material, patina and level of craftsmanship.