The oldest known printed or stamped Buddhist images are these seated Amida Buddhas (or Buddha of Infinite Light), dating from around the 12th century.
According to art historian Mary Baskett, “All the prints, crudely printed or stamped, are direct and simple witness of the faith of the Late Heian period (898-1185). The practice of stamping images from woodblocks was an act of devotion and the act of printing was as important, if not more important, than the print itself. Thousands of images were stamped and personal merit could be accumulated by printing multiple images of the Buddha.”
While some of the preserved sheets were carved and printed (suributsu) from one woodblock, the incomplete sheet in the Graphic Arts Collection is stamped (imbutsu) from several blocks or one repeated block. Each group has twelve buddhas in four rows of three each. (Below is an example of a printed sheet from the Museum of Fine Arts Boston). Our sheet, a gift of Gillett G. Griffin, appears to match the ones discovered in the Jô ruri Temple, where they were stored for centuries inside a carved sculpture of Buddha.
Museum of Fine Arts Boston http://www.mfa.org/collections/object/amida-buddha-sheet-of-100-figures-243835
For more information, see the exhibition catalogue “Footprints of the Buddha: Japanese Buddhist Prints from American and Japanese Collections,” (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1980). Marquand Library NE1310 .B32