Although Buddhism arrived in China as early as around the 1st century AD, it was only embraced as a religion by a larger proportion of the population from the 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 494, the Luoyang region became one of the main centers 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 the catalogue to the exhibition, 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 center for Buddhist sculpture, with limestone quarries located close by. The Shandong peninsula had only been annexed by the Wei in 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 figure 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. Compare in particular two triad groups depicting a similarly styled Buddha in the center, with an oval face and almond-shaped eyes framed by elegantly arched brows that capture a sense of childlike innocence, attributed to the Eastern Wei period, included in the exhibition Return of the Buddha. The Qingzhou Discoveries, op. cit., cat. nos 4 and 8. See also similar heads only, such as one, attributed to the Eastern Wei to Northern Qi period, illustrated in Shangdong Qingzhou Longxing si chutu fojiao shike zaoxiang jingpin/Masterpieces of Buddhist Statuary from Qingzhou city, Beijing, 1999, p. 90; and three published in Qingzhou Longxingsi fojiao zaoxiang yishu [The art of Buddhist sculpture from Longxing Temple in Qingzhou], Jinan, 1999, pls 101, 103 and 105, all attributed to the Northern to Eastern Wei period.
The downfall of the Wei dynasty and the split of China into two separate polities, the Northern Qi (550-577) in the east and the Northern Zhou (557-581) in the west, had a profound influence on the Buddhist art of China. The Gandharan and Mathuran schools of Kushan India, which were transmitted to China through the trading routes of the Silk Road, heavily influenced the emerging Buddhist images in China, evidenced in the imperial patronage of large-scale projects such as Longmen and Yungang. With the rise of the Northern Qi and Zhou, an innovative Buddhist style was adopted, shaped by the cosmopolitan nature of the kingdoms. It was during this time that the Gupta sculptural style, characterized by a sensuous rendering of the human form which had previously been abstracted by stylized folds of drapery, and softer features, found acceptance in the courts of the Northern Qi, and to a certain extent, the Northern Zhou. While the Northern Qi figures display more of the Gupta style, the Northern Zhou is typically more robust, with wider faces and heavier facial features, as seen on the present piece. A comparable bronze figure, of much smaller size, was sold at Christie’s Hong Kong, 2nd December 2015, lot 2901.
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