The present sculpture is unusual, however, in depicting the Buddha on his own, as most stelae carved in this style are triads, with a similar standing Buddha figure with dragon and apsaras overhead, flanked by Bodhisattvas. Also unusual is the outline of its mandorla and its nearly square stand. While it can be compared with a variety of stelae from the Shaanxi/Henan/Shandong region, it cannot easily be attributed to any specific local tradition within this area.
Although Buddhism had arrived in China already around the 1st century AD, it was embraced as a religion by a larger proportion of the population only from 4th century onwards. In the 5th and 6th centuries the number of Buddhist temples, monasteries and nunneries in China increased dramatically. With the move of the Northern Wei capital to Luoyang in Henan province in AD 494, the Luoyang region became one of the centres of the propagation of Buddhist imagery. By the end of the Wei dynasty an estimated 1,367 Buddhist temples are said to have existed in and around Luoyang alone (see Helmut Brinker in Return of the Buddha. The Qingzhou Discoveries, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2002, p. 24). Buddhist temples at the time were lavishly laid out and appointed, much like palace halls, and the aristocracy and rich merchants vied with each other in making generous pious donations to Buddhist institutions.
Fine Buddhist sculpture was, however, not a monopoly of Luoyang and its surroundings. In Shandong province the Qingzhou region appears to have been another major production centre for Buddhist sculpture, with limestone quarries located close by. The Shandong peninsula had only been annexed by the Wei in AD 469, and – as in other Wei-controlled areas – Buddhism began to flourish there in the late 5th century. The discovery of a carefully buried hoard of Buddhist sculptures at the site of Longxing Temple in Qingzhou, which has brought to light an immense number of 6th century stone sculptures, has demonstrated that the workshops of the region were among the main suppliers that catered to the rapidly growing demand in Buddhist images at that time.
The present stele has much in common with sculptures found at Qingzhou, in particular the enchanting other-worldly expression of the delicately featured face with its faint smile, as well as the stylized rendering of the hair through a dense, regular array of bosses. Wei dynasty Qingzhou stelae tend, however, to be surmounted by a group of asparas in high relief, and do not show such bulbous lotus petals on the pedestal. Compare in particular the single standing Buddha figure with a nimbus around the head but no mandorla, attributed to the late Northern Wei period, included in the Royal Academy exhibition 2002, op. cit., cat. no. 13; as well as a triad attributed to the late Northern or Eastern Wei period, cat. no. 3, and one attributed to the Eastern Wei, cat. no. 4; also similar heads only, illustrated in Qingzhou Longxingsi fojiao zaoxiang yishu [The art of Buddhist sculpture from Longxing Temple in Qingzhou], Jinan, 1999, particularly pls 101, 103 and 105, all attributed to the Northern to Eastern Wei period.
A comparable early 6th century triad stele from Qi county northeast of Luoyang in Henan province and now in the Henan Provincial Museum of Zhengzhou, of similar size but carved in a somewhat different style, is illustrated in the Royal Academy of Arts exhibition catalogue, 2002, op. cit., p. 77, fig. 61.
Comparisons attributed to the Shaanxi region are illustrated in Osvald Sirén, Chinese Sculpture from the Fifth to the Fourteenth Century, London, 1925, reprint Bangkok, 1998, vol. I, pl. 138, and Saburō Matsubara, Chūgoku Bukkyō chōkuku shiron/The Path of Chinese Buddhist Sculpture, Tokyo, 1995, vol. I, pl. 199; the former, from the collection of R. Gualino, Turin, lacks the upper part of the stele and differs particularly in its garment folds, which are rendered in prominent relief, and in the depiction of the hair, which lacks the overall knobs; the latter, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, shows the Buddha with hair draped in whorls and the dragon and apsaras above in high relief.
Compare also a triad stele attributed to the first half of the 6th century but not to any particular region, with a Buddha with plain hair and a relief-carved mandorla, in the Nezu Museum of Art, Tokyo, in Matsubara, op. cit., pl. 163b; three triad stelae in the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., all of the Northern Wei dynasty, one dated in accordance with AD 534, which show a similar standing Buddha figure with whorl-draped hair, placed against an engraved mandorla, but all with the upper corner of the stone missing, in Matsubara, op. cit., pls 200 – 202; and an Eastern Wei sculpture dated in accordance with AD 535 in the Fujii Yurinkan, Kyoto, executed in a similar but more emphatic carving style, in Matsubara, op. cit., pl. 232.
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