Lot 202
  • 202


1,200,000 - 1,500,000 USD
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  • Stone
  • Height 17 in., 43.2 cm
the flame-shaped mandorla richly carved in high relief, centered with Shakyamuni Buddha seated in vajraparyankasana on a rectangular platform with loose robes draping the body and falling in rhythmic folds over the platform, the right hand raised in abhaya mudra and left hand in varada mudra, the face with a meditative expression beneath the domed ushnisha, a lotus-form nimbus radiating behind the head, the Buddha flanked by bodhisattvas standing above seated lions, monks and worshipping figures, with five apsaras in flight, each playing a musical instrument and trailing fluttering sashes, all raised on a tiered rectangular base supported on four legs, the upper register of the base carved in high relief with a central squatting figure holding a boshan-form censer overhead and flanked by kneeling monks, the front of the lower register and legs carved with a twenty-character inscription reading 'Zhang Huiqi makes a statue for his mother Sun Sheng, fourth day of the twelfth month in the third year of Xinghe', corresponding to 541, wood stand with descriptive inscribed metal plate (3)


Yamanaka & Co., Osaka, 1924.


Shina ko bijutsu taikan/Catalogue of a Collection of Chinese Art, Yamanaka & Co., Osaka, 1924, cat. no. 120.
Fo diao zhi mei. Bei chao fojiao shidiao yishu/The Splendour of Buddhist Statuaries. Buddhist Stone Carvings in the Northern Dynasties, National Museum of History, Taipei, 1997, cat. no. 017. 
Zhonguo gu fo diao tezhan [Special exhibition of Chinese ancient Buddhist sculptures], Hualien County Cultural Center, Hualien, 1999, cat. no. 011.
Qian gu fo yan. Chuantong diaoke tezhan / Ancient Chinese Buddhist Sculpture II [Thousand ancient Buddhist countenances. Special exhibition of classical sculpture], Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts, Kaohsiung, 2000, cat. no. 18. 


Bore baoxiang Jingyatang cang Zhongguo foxiang yishu /The Treasures of Chinese Buddhist Sculptures, Taipei, 2016, pp. 40-43, cat. no. 6.


In very good general condition, with the exception of a repaired horizontal break to the top of the mandorla, above the heads up the uppermost pair of apsaras. Some very minor infill to the bridge of the nose and light sharpening to the brow of the principal figure. Small scattered losses as visible in the images, most visibly to the tip of the mandorla and to the boshanlu. Surface accretions, surface wear and small chips throughout, as consistent with age and type. Fixed to the wood stand.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

Richly carved with a vibrant scene of veneration, the present carving represents the phenomenon of the emergence of stone steles as an important Buddhist sculptural medium within Chinese history. It stems from the dynamic growth of Buddhism in the 5th century, which saw the formation of Buddhist devotional societies throughout China. These groups sparked a burst of creativity in the production of religious art as devotees fervently commissioned steles to be made, as such acts of personal devotion or accumulation of merits were linked to their future life. Subsequently, a variety of regional styles flourished in the 6th century, distinct from that of famous monumental cave temple carvings.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.