Painted Carved Stone Buddhist Stele

Painted Carved Stone Buddhist Stele

Northern Wei period (386-534), dated 531

Height: 88.3 cm. (34.75 inches)
Width: 50.8 cm (20 inches) 

Provenance: Private Asian Collector


This carved and richly pigmented Buddhist stele consists of three figures, the central, larger Buddha figure and two flanking bodhisattvas, carved in high relief against a backing Mandorla that rises to a point, and is brilliantly decorated with painted scenes of three seated Buddhas. The base of the stele has an inscription dating it to 531 ACE, fourth year of Emperor Yong An’s reign in the Northern Wei period. The central carved Buddha image stands on an elevated pedestal of lotus petals with his right hand raised in Abhayamudra, the gesture of reassurance and his left hand in Varamudra, the gesture of charity. A raised petal-like halo emanates from the Buddha’s head and two painted triple-banded halos surround the Buddha’s body. The two bodhisattvas also stand on smaller lotus pedestals and have petal-like halos around their heads. Both bodhisattvas hold a lotus bud in one hand and peach-shaped object in the other. Two dragons carved in low relief, are positioned on either side of the Buddha, facing outwards, spewing lotus stems from their mouths that support the lotus pedestals on which the bodhisattvas stand.

Much of the original pigmentation on the stele is retained and is especially visible on the Buddha figure’s ample robes and undergarment, the bodhisattvas’ robes and sashes, and most prominently in the painted scenes around the carved figures. Three seated Buddhas are painted on the upper portion of the stele surrounded by their individual oval-shaped halos. The central painted figure is positioned higher, with a golden-yellow halo around his head followed by a series of multi-colored rays filling in the rest of the halo. The two painted Buddhas on either side are slightly smaller and have green halos surrounding their heads. The rest of the stele is fancifully decorated with whirls of colored flames.

Professor Jin Weinuo remarks in his essay “The Artistic Style of the Statuary from Qingzhou” that many statues from the “late Northern Wei period to the Northern Qi have a very unique style. In the center of the backing screen are the main images, which often consist of a Buddha and two Bodhisattvas. At the top of the backing screen are Apsaras, transforming Buddhas or a pagoda, and between these are depicted colored flames. Below the lotus pedestal of the main image are carved celestial dragons with a lotus stem, lotus leaves and lotus blossom emerging from the mouth.”

Two stele with figures bearing very similar characteristics to the figures on the present sculpture can be seen in Masterpieces of Buddhist Statuary from Qingzhou City.