Lot 561
  • 561


120,000 - 180,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • Height 7 1/2  in., 19 cm
the rectangular form with a deep rounded niche containing a high-relief carved central figure of Maitreya seated cross-legged, the proper right hand raised and holding an attribute, the deity wearing a crown, abundant pleated robes, and a necklace harness over the body suspending bi discs from ribbon tassels, supported on a lotus pedestal, a flaming mandorla carved behind the head and flanked on either side by a crowned bodhisattva, all above two figures kneeling in prayer beside a censer, guarded by a pair of crouching lions, the niche surmounted by an arch incised with scrolling flames and peaked leaves extending above from multiple branches, all within a rectangular outlined border, each side of the stele with a further niche, carved with a standing bodhisattva in three-quarter view, each with a tiered crown with long streaming ribbons, adorned in long robes, sashes, and jewelry, supported below by further carved petals, the stone of a mottled yellow with russet and tan inclusions, wood stand, Japanese box (5)


Japanese Private Collection, since 1920s.

Catalogue Note

The Maitreyavyākarana sutra, Mile xiasheng chengfo jing, translated from Sanskrit to Chinese by Kumarajiva (384-417), states that after the time of the Historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, the Future Buddha, Maitreya, would be reborn on earth. The Future Buddha’s lifetime would be a golden era, and many Buddhist disciples during the 6th century prayed to be reborn into this enlightened future period. Maitreya was often depicted seated with the legs pendent or crossed at the ankles, like the present stele’s main figure, and with the hands also in varada and abhaya mudra. The element that most scholars agree can be relied upon to identify the deity during this period, however, is the tree canopy that often shelters the seated figure. Maitreya was thought to be seated in meditation under the nagapusa tree, or in Mandarin, the longshu (dragon tree), in Tusita heaven, awaiting rebirth. Donors commissioned many sculptural works representing this heavenly scene as an offering to Maitreya during the Northern and Southern dynasties. The main figure of this stele is most likely Maitreya, as the legs are carved crossed at the ankles, and the hands are in the reassuring and wish-granting mudras common to the Buddha of the future. The foliage that extends from the top of the niche crest appears to form a thicket of treetops growing from a forest of narrow trunks; the effect is a distant, lush forest canopy. Although the other contending dynasties of the Northern and Southern period also produced Maitreya stele in numbers, certain stylistic elements included in the present example would suggest a Northern Qi attribution. The necklace harness crossed and worn on each of the figures, secured with sizable relief pendants (in contrast to crossed sashes) and the elaborate crowns with ribbons pendent on either side, further support a Northern Qi attribution. The three-quarter-view relief-carved figures on either side of the squared stele are reminiscent of Northern Wei cave sculpture. However, the present figures do not bear the same angular, narrow features associated with the iconic Northern Wei style.

Consider a stele attributed to the Northern Qi, excavated from Shandong province, illustrated in Saburo Matsubara, Chinese Buddhist Sculpture: A study based on bronze and stone statues other than works from cave temples, Tokyo, 1966, pl. 169 a, depicting a central seated Buddha with attendants and crowned bodhisattvas standing on either side, lion guardians and two donor figures praying alongside a censer carved to the lower register, with a similar figural composition to the reverse. It is also worth considering a gilt-bronze stele attributed to late Western Wei, quite possibly a contemporary to the present work, illustrated in ibid., pls 131a, b. The adornments and attitudes of the figures are similar to the present example, the floral mandorla and flame aureole mirror those carved to the back of the present stele’s niche, and the lower register also carries similarities in the pair of lions and central censer of related form.