PURE LAND BUDDHISM
95×30×15 cm. 100kg.
The Tang Dynasty (618-907) is regarded as a high point in Chinese civilization, and a golden age of cosmopolitan culture. Tang scholars compiled a rich variety of historical literature, as well as encyclopedias and geographical works. Notable innovations included the development of woodblock printing. Buddhism became a major influence in Chinese culture, with native Chinese sects gaining prominence. However, in the 840's Emperor Wuzong enacted policies to suppress Buddhism, which subsequently declined in influence. Notes from Dr.Jinchao Zhao of the Center for Global Asia NYU Shanghai.
With relief carving only on the façade the rest sides with chisel marks, this stone slab is a decorative panel rather than free-standing steles. It reminds us of the renowned group of relief panels from Tang dynasty Shanxi (Fig.1), which are commissioned to adorn the larger monument, Qibaotai ??? Pagoda, at Guangzhai ?? Temple, in the capital city Chang'an ??. Yet the piece's provenance would not be the capital area. Firstly, its material in white marble suggests a possible origin in present-day Hebei and Shandong, where white marble constitutes the most popular stone of Buddhist carvings. Secondly, in comparison to the Qibaotai pieces from the capital area, the present slab exhibits relatively rustic craftsmanship, suggesting a provincial workshops. The slender, lean body of the two bodhisattvas in the upper niche, as well as the high lotus throne in the lower niche, suggests a date of the stele at around the seventh century, Tang dynasty (618-907 CE) (Fig. 2). The slab is divided into two main registers. The upper register features a niche of two standing bodhisattvas, with the niche framed by the canopy of a pair of trees. Both stand with a slight sway toward each other. Both feature a high crown. The left hand of the bodhisattva of the right is close to the body, holding attributes that are not identifiable, while the right hand protrudes towards the other bodhisattva, also holding something that is left unrecognizable due to damage. Behind the bodhisattva's head, there is painted traces of the outer rings of the halo. Both hands of the other bodhisattva are also chiseled away, but the remaining parts suggest that his right-hand rests by side of the body and the left-hand raises by the chest, probably holding an attribute. The bodhisattva on the right has the right hand protruding out towards the one on the left. Both bodhisattvas wear two rings of pearl necklace, scarves crossing diagonally through the upper body, and dhoti skirts clinging tightly to their lower bodies. In the narrow space above the main niche of two bodhisattvas, there depicted the Buddha in reclining position, representing the moment of Nirvana, the final enlightenment. With his head pointing to the left, the Buddha is lying down facing the viewers. The Buddha's robe is rendered with folds shown in a schematic pattern. The lower register of the stele opens a large central niche with pointed arch lintel and tree-like pillars on each side. Within the niche a Buddha image sits on a high lotus throne, flanked by a pair of disciples. The Buddha features a full cheek and round, broad upper torso. His robe folds are rendered in a quite simplified way. The outer robe crosses over the higher body with his right shoulder exposed, while the inner robe that is often depicted in Tang Buddhist art is absent. The disciple to the left of the Buddha is perhaps Kasyapa, the aged Arhat (Ch. Luohan ??), given the rendering of his frown eyebrows. The one to the right is thus the younger Arhat Ananda. The niche's base is adorned with a pair of lions facing toward an incense burner located in the center.
The reclining Buddha image is coined to represent Nirvana since the very beginning of Buddhist art in China, both as part of the biographical narrative and as an independent image of worship. But it usually includes a group of mourners in the surrounding, the absence of which on the current slab perhaps suggest a provincial provenance. For a comprehensive discussion, see Sonya Lee, Surviving Nirvana: Death of the Buddha in Chinese Visual Culture (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2010). The identity of the paired bodhisattvas on the middle register remains obscure. During the Tang dynasty, the most renowned depiction of a paired image as the main icon includes Avalokitesvara (Ch. Guanyin ??) and Ksitigarbha (Ch. Dizang ??). Yet Ksitigarbha is always rendered in the monk shape, distinctive from the paired image under discussion. And the pair shows regional popularity in southeastern China. Another pair from the Tang period, Avalokitesvara (Ch. Guanyin ??) and Mahasthamaprapta (Ch. Dashizhi ???), shows more resemblance to the case under discussion, despite their often combined with a Buddha image in the center. Representing compassion and wisdom respectively, the two bodhisattvas are often represented in a pair to form a triad with the Buddha Amitabha (Ch. Amituo ???), the principal icon of Pure Land Buddhism (Ch. Jingtu ??), which became particularly important since the late sixth century in China. Nevertheless, a stele preserved in The Met features the two bodhisattvas standing in pair as the main icon, indicating that the two can serve as the main icon without the presence of the Buddha Amitabha (Fig.3). The bodhisattva on the right is Avalokitesvara, identifiable by the small seated Buddha featured in his headdress, while the one on the left is Mahasthamaprapta for the vase depicted in his headdress. Both hold a vase in their lowered hands, and Avalokitesvara also holds a book in his raised hand. Due to damage of the crowns and hands, it is difficult to confirm the identity of the two bodhisattvas on the current slab as the pair of Avalokitesvara and Mahasthamaprapta. Yet a glimpse into the earlier development of the Pure Land imagery sheds light on current inquiry. Images reflecting the importance of Pure Land Buddhism already appeared in the visual arts of the sixth century in multiple regions across both the north and the south. One of the images showing the paradise of Amitabha is paired bodhisattvas, found primarily in the northeast, present-day Hebei and Shandong provinces (Figs. 4 and 5). Either standing or seated, the pair bodhisattvas are identified as representations of paired Avalokitesvaras by accompanying inscriptions. A small Buddha, or a stupa on the arch of the mandorla above the two bodhisattvas, is understood to represent Amitabha Buddha.
Therefore, the current piece exhibits key elements of representing the Pure Land, including the paired bodhisattvas, as well as the Buddha Amitabha that might be the main icon of the lower niche. Additionally, the prevalent appearance of the paired image in the sixth century in Hebei and Shandong nevertheless reminds us of the current slab's material in white marble, the signature material of Hebei and Shandong. In this theory, the reclining Buddha on top might be included to represent the past. In sum, the present imagery of paired bodhisattva on the slab is more likely a further development of the Northern Qi tradition, suggesting a probable representation of the Pure Land belief. The iconographical lineage of the paired images and reclining Buddha image, as well as the stylistic affinity to other statuary from the seventh century, suggests an earlier period of the seventh century. Its provincial craftsmanship and white marble material further point to a possible provenance in Hebei and Shandong area.
Fig. 1. Panels from the Qibaotai Pagoda by Empress Wu, Shaanxi Province, Chang'an, 703 CE. Tang Dynasty. Repository: Freer Gallery of Art. Source: https://asia.si.edu/object/F1909.98/
Fig. 2. Seated Buddha statue, 7th century, Tang Dynasty. Image: Matsubara 1995, fig. 275 (b).
Fig. 3. Stele with Bodhisattvas Avalokitesvara and Mahasthamaprapta. Henan Province. Mid-to late 7th century, Tang Dynasty. Limestone. Repository: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Source: Leidy 2010, 93.
Dr. Jinchao Zhao is an art historian specializing in visuality, materiality, and transculturality in early medieval Chinese Buddhist art. She received her M.A. in Comparative Literature at Peking University, and obtained her Ph.D. from the University of Virginia in art and architectural history. Her dissertation investigates the Chinese reception and appropriation of the Buddhist stupa worship in early medieval China by examining stupa and pagoda imagery. Her other research interests include Buddhist visual narratives and their interaction with textual traditions, early Indian art, and miniature painting. PROVENANCE. Puchased at auction, Amsterdam October 2021.
Stock ref: 14655