Devotional stone steles such as the present piece became an important Buddhist sculptural medium from the 5th century onwards, when Buddhism spread throughout China, and gave rise to the formation of Buddhist devotional societies. These were made up of lay Buddhists who organised themselves in voluntary groups associated with local temples. These groups were among the first to adopt stone to record their faith, erecting "Buddhist steles that served as monuments commemorating the collective groups' religious, social, and territorial identity" (Dorothy C. Wong, Chinese Steles. Pre-Buddhist and Buddhist Use of a Symbolic Form, Honolulu, 2004, p. 43).
By the Northern Qi dynasty the commissioning of Buddhist stone steles was considered an act of personal devotion, associated to the accumulation of merits for a person's future life. The turbulent years that followed the fall of the Northern Wei dynasty and the establishment of the short-lived Northern Qi and Northern Zhou dynasties, encouraged support for the teachings of the Candragarbha Sutra, which prophesised the end of Buddhism and the incarnation of the future Buddha Maitreya. This eschatological pessimism that prevailed among influential prelates of the Northern Qi, fostered the production of these stone steles.
A stele inscribed with a cyclical date corresponding to the year 560, carved with two seated Buddhas dressed in similarly draped robes and with related facial features, is illustrated in Matsubara Saburō, Chūgoku bukkyō chōkoku shiron [History of Chinese Buddhist sculpture], Tokyo, 1995, vol. II, pl. 384a, together with another also dated to the same year, pl. 384b , carved with a similarly rendered Buddha, from the collection of Sakamoto Gorō, sold in these rooms, 8th October 2013, lot 121. Compare also a stele with a seated Buddha and two bodhisattvas, their dhoti rendered with concentric circles, attributed to the Eastern Wei period (534-550), in the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., illustrated ibid., vol. I, pl. 291b.
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