This ancient Chinese stele, or commemorative stone slab, is carved in limestone and commemorates an Emperor and his living and ancestral family. It consists of an upward slab taller than it is wide, resting on a lotus flower which in turn is set on a solid rectangular base. Although overall the stele has been very well preserved given its age, the top has been partially broken off in an asymmetrical manner. On the front of the stele five figures of differing heights, depending on their importance, have been carved in high relief. Most dominant in the center is the Buddha faced forward, his eyes shut, small mouth slightly pursed, and nose and large ear-lobes prominent. Several concentric circles (the top of which has been broken off) surround his head, part halo and part cloud-like, the outer ring bearing lotus designs. His robe and wide sleeves fall vertically on the sides, but down the center of his body are draped more horizontally. He wears a rounded, domed head piece snugly around this head and ears. His right hand is extended forward with the palm held upwards. His right hand’s palm open and downward. His bare feet with detailed toes stand firmly on top of the lotus flower. On each side of the Buddha are the two smallest and most recessed figures of attendants, on his left, an older disciple and on the right a younger disciple, their simple robes and facial features delineated but unremarkable. These disciples are each flanked at the lateral side of the stele by two bodhisattvas of intermediate size and prominence. The bodhisattva on our left holds a rounded object in his hand, and the one on our right holds an unidentified object, possibly a purse. The head of the right bodhisattva has been lost, part of the diagonal break on the top of the stele. The one on our left has a close-fitting cap surrounding the top and side of his head with long tassels outlining his head and a tall crown decorated with lotus petals. His facial features are delicate, his eyes are closed and his mouth pursed. Both bodhisattva appear to be bare-chested with long vertically draped robes covering their arms, falling to the ground and fastened together at the neck by a collar-like wide pendant necklace. A section of their robe courses through what appears to be a spherical fastener below their waists. All figures stand on lotus leaves supported by two resting lions, and an incense burner in the center.
The carving on the reverse side of the stele is in low relief compared to the deep carving of the front of the piece. Two Buddha figures sit facing one another in a niche, now partially broken. At the lateral sides of the niche two disciples stand, the one on the right wears a crown, the head of the left is partially broken off with only the lower face remaining. Below the platform upon which the two Buddhas sit, six disciples kneel, three on each side faced toward the center. On the lowest strip a large incense burner resting on a lotus pedestal is in the center, and on each lateral side, seated lions face the center, with long backward and upward swept manes.
The base of the stele on the front contains the inscription in Chinese characters and has the dedication to the Emperor, his living parents and ancestors, the lunar date (which equates to July 2, 543 CE) and a list of the 78 donors, many noting their specific donation and thus providing information relative to the iconography on the stele. Two standing guardians in low-relief flank the inscription, one on each side, the figure on the right carries a flask and the one on the left a thunderbolt. The sides and back of the base have low relief images of ten figures, three on the right side, three on the left side, and four on the back, depicted by sitting, loose-painted, human bodies and heads holding certain features that appear to represent spirits. These include: Dragon, Wind, Pearl, Fire Tree, Mountain, Fish, Elephant, and Bird Spirit Kings. Three of the four sides of the stele and base are readily visible, although the inscription and some of the low relief figures are difficult to discern.
142.2 x 81.9 x 62.9 cm (56 x 32 1/4 x 24 3/4 in.)
This votive stele—essentially a tangible prayer—is the most important non-western artwork in the Gardner's collection. Its principal figures, all standing on lotus petals, include the Buddha attended by disciples wearing monastic robes and flanked by bodhisattvas embodying compassion and wisdom. Together they convey messages of universal and personal salvation, appropriate to a votive, an object made in recognition of a prayer fulfilled and donated to a shrine. Seventy-eight donors commissioned this one in honor of the Emperor and their names are listed on its base. This inscription also gives the date of the donation as 2 July 543 CE in a form corresponding to the calendar of the Eastern Wei dynasty.