Period: Tang dynasty (618–907)
Date: mid- to late 7th century
Culture: China (Henan province)
Medium: Limestone with traces of pigment
Dimensions: H. 64 1/2 in. (163.8 cm); W. 35 3/4 in. (90.8 cm); D. 12 3/4 in. (32.4 cm)
Credit Line: Rogers Fund, 1930
Accession Number: 30.122
During the Tang dynasty, Buddhist sects or schools of distinctively Chinese character were established. The Western Pure Land sect, based on the cult of the Buddha Amitabha, attracted the largest number of adherents. Motivated by the firm belief that salvation awaits each and every devotee in a paradise situated in the western realm of Buddhist cosmology, pious patrons sponsored the making of sculptures depicting the bodhisattvas and the blissful splendor of the Western paradise. This black limestone stele is one of the best examples of Buddhist devotional art in Tang China.
Originally located in a temple in Xinxiang County in the central Chinese province of Henan, the stele now occupies a commanding position in the Weber Galleries of the Museum. On the front of the stele are a pair of bodhisattvas posed in a regal yet welcoming stance. Judging by the small Buddhas on the crowns, they represent Guanyin (Avalokiteshvara), one of the principal bodhisattvas associated with the Pure Land cult. In other Pure Land depictions, Amitabha is often accompanied by Guanyin and Dashizhi (Mahasthamaprapta); the latter is identified by a vase on the crown which symbolizes purity. In one of the three niches hollowed out on the reverse of the stele, Amitabha and his attendants are represented in relief, and below this group small figures atop the lotus flowers signify those who have been reborn in the Western paradise.
All four surfaces outside the sunken niches are covered with small figures of the Thousand Buddhas, a symbol of the omnipresence of Buddhahood, or enlightenment. During the Tang period, in the dimly lit temple these images of translucent illusion must have been persuasive reminders of the true existence of the Pure Land, where deliverance is guaranteed. Despite minor damage, the sculptor's skill is revealed in the gentle S-shape swing of the bodhisattvas' bodies and the individuality of the Thousand Buddhas. The scrolling flower patterns are boldly rendered with lively fluency, suggesting an execution date in the early rather than late Tang period.