Since the 3rd century BC, the use of steles as symbolic monuments has endured throughout Chinese history. Initially utilized for commemorative purposes, these monuments extolled the political and philosophical values of the reigning party and were erected in public spaces as emblems of a community’s identity and to foster societal unity. According to Dorothy C. Wong in Chinese Steles. Pre-Buddhist and Buddhist Use of a Symbolic Form, Honolulu, 2004, p. 43, the origins of Buddhist steles can be traced to two events that occurred during the last two decades of the fifth century: the emergence of Buddhist devotional societies and the first espousal of tablets for Buddhist use. These events are documented at the Buddhist cave temple sites, Yungang and Longmen (386-534).
Buddhist devotional groups played 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 organised 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.). By the 6th century, these groups became the chief patrons of steles, with a smaller number sponsored by individual donors and families, such as the present piece. The popularity of steles is attributable to the easy accessibility of the medium and its relatively small size. These two factors gave rise to a multitude of regional workshops, many of which developed their own style using the monumental cave temple carvings as a basis.
The present carving belongs to a select group of sculptures which are carved from a distinct yellow-flecked limestone, which includes a related stele, dated to 538, in the Yurinkan Museum, Kyoto, published in Yurinkan Seika, Kyoto, 1975, pl. 19 (fig. 1). Shared characteristics between these two steles include a similarity in composition and the use of high-relief carving to create an animated scene, particularly in the modeling of the apsaras flying above the central figure. The sweet expressions of the figures as well as the fullness of their bodies and style of drapery are also strikingly similar, which suggests they may have been created by the same hand.
This stele is iconographically complex: the central Buddha, in this period probably Shakyamuni, has two small Buddhas sitting on top of his lotus-shaped halo, possibly as reference to the Buddhist trinity. He holds his right hand up in abhaya mudra, which signifies reassurance, while the left hand is held in varada mudra, symbolising compassion and charity. Together the hand gestures convey to worshippers that they may approach and receive the blessing of the Buddha. He is attended by bodhisattvas, lions, monks and worshipping figures. Below, two monks kneel to either side of a squatting demonic figure supporting a boshan-form censer. A celestial quality is captured through the five apsaras playing instruments that frame the entire scene as they hover above. One of the Eight Supernatural beings (babuzhong) in the Buddhist pantheon, according to the Lotus Sutra, apsaras are the protectors of the Buddha and of doctrine. Appearing on Chinese Buddhist images as early as 420 in the cave temple of Binglingsi, Yongjing county, these deities grew in popularity in the late Northern Wei and Eastern Wei periods (see the catalogue to the exhibition Return of the Buddha: The Qingzhou Discoveries, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2002, p. 84).
As seen on this stele, the development of Buddhist sculpture of the Eastern Wei can be described as a slight modification of iconography and style from previous periods. The figures are fuller in form, which reveals the growing interest in form over line, and a masterful ability to incorporate the play of light in the overall composition through high-relief modeling. This effect is most noticeable on the apsaras, the curves of their bodies and flowing scarves creating a wonderful rhythmic quality which creates a lively interplay of light and shade that gives it a flickering quality. A limestone fragment of similarly carved apsara, in the Jingyatang collection, is published in Bore baoxiang Jingyatang cang Zhongguo fojia yishu /The Treasures of Chinese Buddhist Sculptures, Taipei, 2016, pl. 7.
Due to the regional nature of stele production, carving styles of the brief Eastern Wei period vary noticeably; compare related dated examples, such as a larger limestone example with similar leaf-shaped mandorla, dated to 537, attributed to Hebei province, from the John Huntington Art and Polytechnic Trust and now in the Cleveland Museum of Art, included in the exhibition The Footsteps of the Buddha. An Iconic Journey from India to China, University Museum and Art Gallery, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 1988, cat. no. 93; and an alabaster stele of similar size, but carved with some openwork in the background, dated to 544, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, included in the exhibition Chinese Buddhist Sculpture from the Wei through the T’ang Dynasties, National Museum of History, Taipei, 1983, cat. no. 11. A similar stele depicting the Buddhist triad and apsaras, but missing the base, in the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, is included in Liu Yang, ‘The Discovery of Mass: a footnote to the stylistic and iconographic innovation in Chinese Buddhist sculpture’, Orientations, September 2000, fig. 2.
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