Northern Qi Buddhist Stele

SKU AM.0341

550 AD to 577 AD


22.05″ (56.0cm) high x 16.9″ (42.9cm) wide x 3.92″ (10.0cm) depth





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The Northern Qi were an extremely short-lived dynasty during a very tumultuous period in Chinese history. However, despite the military and political unrest that characterised their twenty-seven year reign, the arts continued to flourish. In fact the fifth and sixth centuries were extremely important to the development of Buddhist art in China. Although Buddhism reached China along the Silk Route during the Han era, it took several centuries to really gain ground. The legendary conversion of the Han Emperor Mingdi in the first century AD was a turning point, but the state still hesitated to promote Buddhism over native ideologies such as Confucianism and Daoism. Real progress took place under the Northern Wei, a foreign dynasty who adopted Buddhism as the state religion. The monumental cave sculptures at Yungang and Longmen attest to this new enthusiasm. Although there are notable stylistic differences between Wei and Qi period sculpture, namely in areas such as drapery, both eras witnessed a remarkable enthusiasm for commissioning images of the Buddha.

This stone stele is a perfect example of this trend. The Buddha, carved in high relief, is seated on a pedestal in the centre of a deep niche. The scale of the figures reflects their relative importance. On either side he is flanked by two attendants with bare heads and two bodhisattvas, standing on a pair of crouching lions. The expression of the Buddha is one of deep meditation with his eyes downcast and his left hand pointing towards the earth. The right hand is missing, but may well have been raised in the opposite direction to the left. The folds of the tightly fitting robes have all been carefully delineated and fall over the base in regular concentric semi-circles. The back of the niche features a lightly incised aureole with flame-like projections.

Multiple images of the Buddha were extremely popular in this period and are present here in the outer frame. On the upper tier a row of standing attendants are visible behind a compressed leaf- shape mandorla. Within this, above a row of seated Buddhas, four flying heavenly beings support a central flame. Wearing billowing stoles, their hair is tied in topknots that move with the wind. Heavenly beings were low ranking deities or semi-deities who worshipped the Buddha and bodhisattvas in song and dance and sometimes offered them votive gifts such as flowers or incense. They originated in Indian mythology and belong among the Eight Supernatural Beings (Chinese: babuzhong) in the Buddhist pantheon. According to the Lotus Sutra their role is to protect the Buddha and Buddhist doctrine.

The two small-scale kneeling figures within the upper mandorla may well represent the donors who commissioned the stele. The lowest tier is equally impressive with four crouching bodhisattvas, framed on either end by a snarling creature, possibly representing a lion or dragon. Dragons feature elsewhere in the design, with their heads visible just above the columns that frame the central niche. Fire and flames appear to be the central theme of the stele, and the outline of the leaf-shape mandorla is created from flames issuing from the mouths of these dragons.

This piece is exceptional, both for its iconography and the quality of the carving. In excellent condition, it deserves to be the centrepiece of any serious collection of Buddhist art.

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