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Reconsidering the Eastern Wei Buddhist Stele dated to 537 CE in the Cleveland Museum of Art


A Chinese Buddhist votive stone stele dated to 537 CE in the Cleveland Museum of Art in Ohio, the United States is considered to have serious historical significances. The limestone-made artifact’s overall size was 77.5 x 44.4 cm. It was a gift from the John Huntington Art and Polytechnic Trust to the Cleveland Art Museum in 1914. The stele had been once showcased in Hong Kong publicly in “In the Footsteps of the Buddha: An Iconic Journey from India to China” from 26 September to 15 December 1998, an exhibition jointly organized by the Department of Fine Arts and the University Museum and Art Gallery of the University of Hong Kong.

The front side of the stele consisted of a Shakyamuni triad: Shakyamuni was standing in the middle accompanied with two bodhisattvas standing at both sides. The three figures were sculpted in a sino-manner, at least the facial features such as pointed chins, small and low-relief noses showed sino-style. The figures’ robes showed a delicate arrangement of patterned drapery. There were folds in both large omega- and scallop-shape at the hem with an orderly symmetry. The mandorla was in almond-shape, on which soaring flames were depicted. The Buddha’s halo depicted floral decorations, a style which originated in Indian Gupta region that later came to be typical Northern and Eastern Wei style. A thing that worths to mention is that on the top of the halo, there was an unusual lion pattern.

I consider that the lion pattern was not a purely innovative idea of certain patrons or artisans. On the contrary, this pattern did show a lineage of decorative design traditions in Indian and Chinese Buddhist sculptures. I propose that this lion pattern was a kind of ideogram, which was in fact referring to, and functioning as Hindu’s Kirtimukha, but at the same time iconographically using the “Taotie” symbol which appeared in sino-region at earliest Shang Dynasty.

The second question about the Buddhist stele would be about the personal history of the patron. This concerned monumental piece, although missing its pedestal, was fully inscribed on reverse. The inscriptions stated clearly that it was engraved in 537 CE under the reign of Eastern Wei dynasty (534-550), commissioned by Yuan Ning 元寧, prince of the Gaoping branch of the imperial Wei family, in memory of his deceased consort (“er qi Sima fei 二妻司馬妃”), in the hope that it would bring her to the Western paradise. In the collection of the Institute of History and Philology, Academia Sinica in Taiwan, there was a piece of ink rubbing recording the presence of a Buddhist stone engraving of 526 CE which was interestingly, also commissioned by Yuan Ning who was under different official titles. The two artifacts may then re-write the personal history of the mysterious Tuoba prince.