With the pronounced facial features, cascading garment and the dark-grayish colored limestone, this figure is carved in the style of Northern Wei (386-534) stone sculptures in the Longmen cave temples located south of Luoyang in Henan province. The benign facial expression incarnating compassion and gentleness is created by a deeply carved groove around the mouth. The sloping shoulder and cascading garment with various folds falling over the body indicated by low-relief lines deliberately emphasise the linearity of the overall composition. Its compact size suggests that he was likely part of an elaborate votive pantheon or stele, possibly depicting the popular religious debate with Manjushri, the 'Bodhisattva of Wisdom', along with various disciples and deities witnessing the illuminating conversations.
Compare depictions of Vimalakirti in the Yungang grottoes, particularly a carving of the debate found in Cave no. 6 and illustrated in Seiichi Mizuno, Yun-Kang: The Buddhist Cave-Temples of the Fifth Century A.D. in North China, Kyoto, 1951-56, vol III, pl. 31 (fig.1). Vimalakirti's foreign origins are still quite visible in this rendition. He wears a Phrygian cap, tall boots, and the upwardly peaked fan is still of deer tail, unlike the feathered versions more familiar to Chinese artisans. Even within the Yungang grottoes, the evolution and sinification of Vimalakirti can be detected, and by the sixth century, several elements including the fan and the figure's wardrobe abandon their western heritage. By the Tang dynasty, illustrations of the debate developed further and painted representations of the sutra began to outnumber stone carvings.
The Longman caves also include figures carved in a similar style, such as three bodhisattvas seated in a pensive pose, illustrated in Zhongguo meishi quanji: Diaosu bian. [Complete series on Chinese art: Sculpture section], 11: Longmen shiku diaoke [Sculptures of the Longmen caves], Shanghai, 1988, pls 53-5; and a fragment of a flying apsara, from the collection of Albright-Knox Art Gallery, sold in these rooms, 19th-20th March 2007, lot 506. See also other stone representations of Vimalakirti, along with other standing disciples and angel-like female figures hovering mid-air, illustrated in Longmen Shiku, Beijing, 1980, pl. 112, and Li Wensheng ed., Longmen shiku zhuangshi diaoke, Shanghai, 1991, pl. 139.
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