Buddhist Stele, Northern Qi dynasty (A.D. 550-577)
64 x 23 5/8 x 22 in. (162.6 x 60 x 55.8 cm)
R. T. Miller, Jr. Fund, 1946
This statue of a standing Buddha, hands held out in a gesture of compassion and reassurance, is a rare and remarkably well-preserved example of early Chinese Buddhist sculpture.
Buddhism originated in India during the sixth century B.C., but later spread to lands all across Asia. It first reached China during the Later Han dynasty (A.D. 25-220). Although initially Buddhism was slow to win converts from the native Confucian and Daoist schools of thought, the collapse of the political and social orders at the end of the Han dynasty prepared fertile ground for the Indian religion to take root. The confusion, disillusionment, and general hardship generated by centuries of warfare during the Six Dynasties period (A.D. 220-589) made Buddhist doctrines of peace and freedom from suffering especially appealing. Official state patronage from some of the northern dynasties also contributed to Buddhism's successful establishment in China during the post-Han
period.1 This stele was made for worship in a temple during the Northern Qi dynasty (A.D. 550-577), one of the last of the northern kingdoms at the end of the Six Dynasties period.
The figure represented in this stele is identifiable as the historical Buddha by his topknot (called an ushnisha, a sign of his extraordinary wisdom), and elongated earlobes (said to symbolize his attentiveness to the pleas and prayers of his followers, or, alternately, to reflect his noble origins as a prince who had grown up wearing heavy gold earrings). He wears a monk's robe (signifying the post-enlightenment phase of his life), and his hands are held in two symbolic gestures, called mudra. The right hand is held up, palm outward in a gesture called abhaya mudra, which signifies reassurance, while the left hand is held down, palm outward in a gesture called varada mudra, which signifies compassion and charity. Together the hand gestures convey to worshippers that they may approach and receive the blessing of the Buddha.
The Buddha is surrounded by a mandorla, a kind of halo that is incised with decorative designs, and he stands on a lotus petal base. Because the lotus grows out of the mud to become a beautiful flower, it was often used in Buddhist art to symbolize transcendence from the human world of suffering and pain. The lotus base is supported on either side by lion-like beasts, and a tiny figure in the center that may represent an earth spirit. The guardian beasts and earth spirit reveal how early Buddhists incorporated elements of native Chinese folk beliefs in order to help their doctrine gain wider acceptance and win converts. Inscriptions, now only partly legible, on the base and mandorla record the dedications of several monks and pious secular patrons of the temple where this statue was originally erected.2
The stele is carved from a type of black limestone found in northern China. The square head with serene face, the volumetric body, and the fluid drapery all date this stele firmly to the Northern Qi period.3 The calm compassion and approachable familiarity of this figure reveal better than any text how comfortably ensconced Buddhism had become in Chinese culture by the latter half of the sixth century.
The survival of the base and image together in such a well-preserved state makes this stele an unusual and important piece of early Chinese Buddhist sculpture. Severe persecutions of Buddhism in China in the fifth, ninth, and tenth centuries resulted in the destruction of much early Buddhist art. Many of the pieces that survived did so because they were buried by the faithful for safekeeping. This stele has traces of encrustation that suggest it spent some years protected underground.
With Yamanaka and Co., Kyôto, Japan (1922)
Pitcairn Collection, Brynattyn, Pennsylvania
Collection, Jan Kleijkamp and Ellis Monroe, New York, from whom purchased in 1946
San Francisco, M. H. de Young Memorial Museum, 1944. Chinese Sculpture: Han to Sung, from the Collection of Jan Kleijkamp and Ellis Monroe. 16 July - 15 August. (Also shown at Santa Barbara Museum of Art; Pasadena Art Institute; Portland, Ore., Portland Art Museum; Seattle Art Museum; The Minneapolis Institute of Arts; Omaha, Joslyn Memorial Museum; Oberlin, Ohio, Allen Memorial Art Museum; Columbus, Ohio, Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts; Indianapolis, Ind., John Herron Art Institute; Springfield, Mass., Springfield Museum of Fine Arts; and Hartford, Wadsworth Atheneum.)
Siren, Osvald. Chinese Sculpture from the Fifth to the Fourteenth Century. New York, 1925. Vol. 3, pl. 326.
Salmony, Alfred. Chinese Sculpture: Han to Sung, from the Collection of Jan Kleijkamp and Ellis Monroe. Exh. cat., M. H. de Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco, 1944, pp. 36-39.
King, Hazel B. "A VI Century Votive Stele." Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 4, no. 1 (March 1947), pp. 5-12.
This stele is made of black limestone, and is constructed in two pieces (figure and madorla, and base), with incised decorations, inscriptions, and traces of white and red pigments. It is generally in good condition, with some chipping, losses, and repairs: the faces fo the two lionlike beats have been damaged, and the fingers of the Buddha's proper right hand have been broken off. There is significant wear to the incised areas, and many of the inscriptions are now illegible. Traces of encrustation suggest burial at some point in the past.
2. For a general discussion of Buddhist iconography and its historical development, see David L. Snellgrove, ed., The Image of the Buddha (New York, 1978).
3. This stele compares very well to a similar Northern Qi sculpture in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; black limestone, 78 cm high, inv. no. 63.25. See Angela Falco Howard and Abraham P. Ho, eds., Chinese Buddhist Sculpture from the Wei Through the T'ang (Taipei, 1983), pp. 120-23.