09 novembre 2020

A large limestone Buddhist stele, Eastern Wei Dynasty or later


Lot 155. A large limestone Buddhist stele, Eastern Wei Dynasty or later; 96cm high (37 6/8in) high. Estimate £ 30,000 - £ 50,000Sold for £ 68,812 (€ 76,268). Courtesy Bonhams.

Superbly carved as a large reclining stag with its head held high and turned sharply towards a smaller deer, the stag with long antlers extending down its neck, its legs tucked beneath its body, both deer clasping a large, leafy sprig with five lingzhi fungus heads in their mouths, the stone of a very pale green-white tone with russet patches, with silver-inlaid wood stand.

Provenance: Nakanishi Bunzo, Kyoto, possibly by inheritance from his father Nakanishi Bunzo, who was chief assistant at the Kyoto branch of Yamanaka & Co., by repute
James Freeman, Kyoto
An important American private collection, acquired from the above in 2002.

NoteRichly carved with a vibrant scene of veneration, encapsulating Buddhist compassion and celestial quality, the present carving encapsulates the emergence of stone steles as an important Buddhist sculptural medium in Chinese history.

Holding his right hand in abhaya mudra, signifying reassurance, the Buddha conveys to the worshippers that they may receive the divine blessings.

According to the 'Lotus Sutra', the apsaras are the protectors of the Buddha and of doctrine. These creatures were frequently portrayed in Buddhist cave temples from at least 420 and grew in popularity during the late Northern Wei and Eastern Wei periods. See The Return of the Buddha: The Qingzhou Discoveries, London, 2002, p.84.

The origins of Buddhist steles are traceable to two major historical events, both documented at the Buddhist cave temple sites of Yungang and Longmen (386-534), which occurred during the last two decades of the fifth century: the emergence of Buddhist devotional societies and the first espousal of tablets for Buddhist use. See D.C.Wong, Chinese Steles. Pre-Buddhist and Buddhist Use of a Symbolic Form, Honolulu, 2004, p.43.

Steles played an important role in the development of regional religious art. During the Northern Wei dynasty, state-sponsorship of Buddhism enabled the rapid spread of the religion throughout Northern China. At this time, Buddhist voluntary groups affiliated to local temples and organised by laymen became the main patrons of Buddhist steles which commemorated the group's religious, social, and territorial identity. The relative ubiquity of the medium employed to manufacture steles, and their small size, prompted a multitude of regional workshops, many of which developed their own style using the monumental cave temple carvings as a basis.

Compare the stylistic features of the present stele with a related one, dated by inscription to the Eastern Wei (534-550), from the Cleveland Museum, of Art, Ohio, illustrated in J.A MacLean, 'A Buddhist Trinity', in The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art, vol.11, no.3, 1914, pp.2-3. Similarities can be noted in the serene expressions of the figures, fullness of their bodies and style of drapery as well as the modelling of the apsaras flying above the central figures.

A related inscribed limestone Buddhist stele, Eastern Wei dynasty, was sold at Sotheby's New York, 20 March 2018, lot 202.


An Inscribed and Dated 'Huanghuashi' Limestone Buddhist Stele, Eastern Wei Dynasty, dated Xinghe Third Year, corresponding to 541. Height 17 in., 43.2 cm. Estimate 1,200,000 — 1,500,000 USD. Sold for 1,335,000 USD at Sotheby's New York, 20 March 2018, lot 202. Courtesy Sotheby's.

Cf. my post: Buddhist treasures from the Jingyatang Collection to be offered at Sotheby's

Bonhams. Fine Chinese Art, London, 5 Nov 2020

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