The rise of Buddhist devotional societies held an important role in the development of regional religious art. During the Northern Wei dynasty, state-sponsorship of Buddhism enabled the rapid spread of the religion throughout Northern China. Lay Buddhists organized themselves into voluntary groups and associated with local temples. These groups were among the first to adopt stone tablets to record their faith, erecting ‘Buddhist steles that served as monuments commemorating the collective groups’ religious, social, and territorial identity’ (ibid., p. 43). By the 6th century, these groups became the chief patrons of steles, with a smaller number sponsored by individual donors and families. The popularity of steles is attributable to the easy accessibility of stone and its relatively small size. These two factors gave rise to a multitude of regional workshops, many of which developed their own style.
This stele bears an inscription with a cyclical date corresponding to 561, and is therefore an early example of Northern Zhou lapidary art. The fall of the Northern Wei dynasty and subsequent political and military unrest had a profound effect on Buddhism and its art forms. The provinces of Gansu, parts of Shanxi, Sichuan and Hunan, which in 533 had been annexed by the Western Wei, fell to the Northern Zhou, while the Northern Qi dynasty took control of the provinces in eastern China. Sculptures of this period exhibit a tendency towards rounder bodies, thinner clothing and softer facial features as carvers took inspiration from works of the Gupta school. The figures on this stele, however, still exhibit many characteristics of the Northern Wei dynasty, as exemplified by examples at the Longmen Caves, Henan province, which were heavily inspired by the Indian schools of Gandhara and Mathura. The overall linearity of the composition evident in the rendering of the robes, and the figures’ slightly elongated faces and faint smiles display the continuation of the Northern Wei style.
Buddhist sculptures from this period are rare, although this piece shares similarities with a stele inscribed with a cyclical date corresponding to 564, but carved with a Buddha and two bodhisattvas, in the Masaki Art Museum, Osaka, included in the exhibition Chinese Buddhist Stone Sculpture. Veneration of the Sublime, Osaka Municipal Museum of Art, Osaka, 1995, cat. no. 125, together with a stele attributed to the Western Wei period, that features a similar treatment of the facial features, in the Tokyo National Museum, Tokyo, ibid., cat. no. 101. See also a stele in the Museum of Fine Art, Boston, acc. no. 10.275; and one recovered in Zhengzhou, Henan province, included in the exhibition Cina alla Corte degli Imperatori, Palazzo Strozzi, Florence, 2008, cat. no. 22. The Buddha’s robe in the latter two examples falls over the left arm in a similar manner.
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