The popularity of Buddhism during the Northern Wei period is reflected in the spread of art patronage through all levels of society. This stele was sponsored by thirty-four individuals who had their names and images incised on the reverse. Northern Wei sculpture is hieratic in composition, with the sanctity of the deity figures reflected in their placement and relative sizes. In this stele Sakyamuni Buddha is in the center flanked by two bodhisattvas who are almost half his size. The linear description of the garment, with its rippling folds flaring into an exaggeratedly wide scalloped hem, indicates that the sculptor incorporated traditional Chinese artistic idioms and style into a sculptural art that originated outside China. In symbolic gestures Sakyamuni reassures the faithful that their wishes will be granted and their fears set at rest.
|The pictorial complexity and extraordinarily rich iconography of this stele suggest that it was made a few centuries after Buddhism was introduced to China. During the sixth century, the Chinese state of Liang, in present-day Sichuan Province where this stele was found, had close ties with India and Southeast Asian countries through trade and diplomatic and religious missions. Sculptural images in various mediums from the Indian Gupta kingdom (4th-6th centuries), brought back by returning monks and merchants, exerted significant influences on the style of Chinese Buddhist sculpture. The sensuous modeling and suggestion of movement in the figures reflect this conscious process of artistic borrowing. The landscape settings for Buddhist narratives on the back of the stele are particularly noteworthy. In the lower half of the stele, mountain forms, rocks, and trees create "space cells" within which the figures and other narrative elements are placed. This is an example of an early stage in the continuing efforts of Chinese artists to represent three-dimensional landscape space convincingly on a two-dimensional picture surface. A very early experiment in three-point perspective can be seen in the architectural setting depicted in the upper part of the stele.|
|In a long inscription engraved on the pedestal of this gilt bronze altar made for a private home, the lay devotee Dong Qin states that he commissioned the image of Amitabha for the protection of the emperor, the empress, and members of his family. Amitabha, the Buddha residing in the Pure Land of the West, receives into paradise the faithful who invoke his name. There, in bliss, they await their next rebirth. He is represented in the center of a triad, with the bodhisattvas Avalokitesvara on his left and Mahasthamaprapta on his right. They are accompanied by a pair of divine guardians whose bulging muscles and wide-open eyes express the potent wrath against evil of these protectors of Buddhist Law. The gentle fluidity and linearity of the garment folds and scarves are features common to Buddhist stone sculptures of the sixth century. The radiance of the gilt surface effectively suggests the glory of Amitabha's Western Paradise. The thorough fusion of influences into a fully sinicized style is evident in the just proportions of these figures and in the sense of motion combined with careful symmetry.|