Buddhist stele

Historical period(s)
Possibly Northern Wei Dynasty, or later, 521
H x W: 70 x 34.2 cm (27 9/16 x 13 7/16 in)
Credit Line
Purchase — Charles Lang Freer Endowment
Freer Gallery of Art
Accession Number
On View Location
Currently not on view
Sculpture, Stone


bodhisattva, Buddha, Buddhism, China, dhyana mudra, lettering, Northern Wei dynasty (386 - 534)
Provenance research underway.

Previously thought to be from Fuxian in the northern province of Shaanxi, this sculpture's origin is in doubt.
It is a stela, a large stone tablet popular for Buddhist imagery in the sixth century. The sculpture is related to a group of similar works that are in private collections and museums outside of China. The lack of comparable Northern Wei dynasty (386-534) works from Shaanxi Province suggests the possibility that all of these stelae were made in the early twentieth century for sale to foreigners. Yet, these sculptures are convincing in many regards, including the conventional subject matter.

The stela here is not complete-as indicated by the tenon protruding at the top-and originally must have had an additional section. The main image is a seated Buddha flanked by attendants. The cranial protuberance, small circle in the center of the forehead, and elongated earlobes are common attributes of a Buddha image, as are the  monastic dress and hands placed together in a gesture of meditation. Small seated Buddha figures are neatly arranged above and to the sides of the main niche. Two figures dressed in monastic robes appear below the central niche; one holds a mountain-shaped incense burner. The flat, parallel pleats of drapery on all of the figures is a distinctive feature of this work.

The inscription, which begins at the right and is dated to 521, states that two monks, Liu Fazang and Fa Zun, donated an image of fifty-three Buddhas for the benefit of their younger brother. The single line of text at the far left is difficult to read but may be the name of another donor. A separate line of text is unusual, and its relationship to the dedication is unclear.

An in-depth article about this image is displayed on the bench and is available in the gallery shops.

Published References
  • Dr. John Alexander Pope, Thomas Lawton, Harold P. Stern. The Freer Gallery of Art. 2 vols., Washington and Tokyo, 1971-1972. cat. 117, vol. 1: p. 177.
  • Stanley K. Abe. A Freer Stela Reconsidered. vol. 3 Washington, 2002. pp. 10, 22, 23, figs. 1, 18, 20.
  • Saburo Matsubara. Chinese Buddhist Sculpture [Chugoku Bukkyo chokokushi kenkyu]: A Study Based on Bronze and Stone Statues other than Works from Cave Temples. Tokyo, 1961-1971. p. 29, figs. a, b, 72a.
Collection Area(s)
Chinese Art
Web Resources
Google Cultural Institute
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