A White Marble Buddhist Stele
A White Marble Buddhist Stele
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A White Marble Buddhist Stele

Northern Qi Dynasty, 550 – 577
Dated by Inscription to AD 554
Height: 49.2 cm

A white marble Buddhist stele of pointed arched form, carved in high relief with a figure of Guanyin standing between two bodhisattva, beneath a smaller seated figure of Amitabha, flanked by six flying apsara, all below a stupa hung with beaded tassels, against a ground of foliate scrolls, supported on a plinth carved with a censer supported on the back of a strongman, flanked by lions and guardians, the back covered with a dark red pigment above a worn inscription partially reading Tianbao si nian san yue ershi ri (4th year of Tianbao, 3rd month, 20th day), stand (2).

Provenance

Christie’s, London, 1982
Eskenazi Ltd, London, until 1986
Michael B. Weisbrod, Inc., New York, from August, 1986
Enid A. Haupt, New York, 1987
Christie’s, New York, March 2000
Weisbrod Chinese Art, Ltd, New York
Canadian Private Collection
Sotheby’s, New York, 2014
Important North American Collection

Published

Michael B. Weisbrod, Religion and Ritual in Chinese Art, New York, 1987, cat. no. 17.


There is a Chinese folk adage  ‘Every house has Amitabha, every family has Guanyin,’ which is meant to indicate how popular Guanyin is among the common folk – second only to Amitabha. In fact, Guanyin actually eclipses Amitabha in the hearts of lay devotees, and the present lot illustrates this. The figure of Guanyin is literally front and center. Amitabha hovers above, but his small size makes him appear far away and distant. The smaller size of the two bodhisattva flanking Guanyin also creates the illusion of depth, making Guanyin appear closer.

The marble stele is carved in very high relief with a figure of the bodhisattva Guanyin flanked by two attendant bodhisattvas on individual lotus pedestals against a tall leafshaped aureole.

Above the head of the Guanyin is carved the figure of Buddha seated on a lotus throne with his hands in dhyana mudra, i.e. the gesture of meditation. At the very top of the aureole is carved a square stupa supported by flying dragons. Flying apsaras, or buddhist angels, with streaming garlands descend on either side of the floating Buddha. Leafy scrolls are carved in low relief on the remaining space of the aureole. The stem of the Guanyin’s lotus pedestal is held by a pot bellied man carved on the front of the rectangular base. Two seated lions and two bare chested guardian figures in aggressive striding poses flank the pot bellied man. A lengthy and barely legible inscription dated to the fifth year of Tianbao is carved on the back of the base. Traces of brilliant blue, green and red pigment remain. The stele represents Sakyamuni Buddha’s sermon on Vulture Peak which is described in the “Lotus Sutra”.

At the opening of the sermon, a jewelled funerary stupa emerges out of the ground and hovers over the audience. This is the stupa of Prabhutaratna, a Buddha from a very remote age who was to reappear to hear the teaching of the True Law. A host of Buddhas and bodhisattvas appear and reappear to hear the teaching of the True Law. A host of Buddhas and bodhisattvas appear and descend to the peak to witness the next miracle. When the full assembly has gathered, Sakyamuni rises into the air and opens the door of the stupa to sit next to Prabhutaratna.

The audience rejoices and scatters flowers on the two Buddhas (Soper, Literary Evidence for Early Buddhist Art in China, p. 180-181). Guanyin, or Avalokitesvara, was represented as a divine savior in his own chapter in the Sutra and was included among the audience at the miraculous sermon. The smoothly carved, round forms of the figures are characteristic of the Northern Qi style. Representations of the Sermon on Vulture Peak was a popular subject of the white marble stelae produced in the Baoding area in Hebei province.

A similar formula of deeply carved descending stupa and heavenly host with a floating Buddha is used in a marble stele in the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco (Watson, Art of Dynastic China, no. 373). It is carved with twin seated Buddhas as the main image and with pairs of lions and bare chested guardians on the base

A Northern Qi stele in the collection of the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, illustrated in Chinese Art in Overseas Collections, Buddhist Sculpture II, Taipei, 1995, no. 49,  has a similar layout to the present lot, with a seated buddha below a stupa flanked by flying apsara hovering above larger figures. Another similar example from the collection of the British Rail Pension Fund was sold in Sotheby's London rooms, 12th December 1989, lot 31, and a stele with three figures without the stupa hovering above was sold in these rooms, 21st September 2006, Sotheby's lot 129.