Important Cultural PropertyNiche of a buddha triad

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  • From Baoqing Temple, Xi’an, China
  • Stone relief
  • Max. height 104.5 cm
  • Tang dynasty (China), 8th century
  • Kyushu National Museum
  • C2

This niche belongs to a set of thirty stone reliefs from Baoqing Temple, and is one of the most representative stone carvings from the Tang dynasty (618–907). Baoqing Temple was a temple located near the south gate of the Chang’an capital during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). Today, the only structure that remains of the temple is a stone pagoda which held stone niches, including this one. These carvings, which were stored in the main hall of the temple, had originally been part of the Qibaotai pagoda in Guangzhai Temple, a temple in the Guangzhai district located immediately south of the Daming Palace in Chang’an during the Tang dynasty. This information is found on multiple niches from the series in the form of inscriptions, alongside carvings indicating years (703–4, 724) that suggest they were created in the early eighth century.

The Guangzhai Temple was allegedly founded in 677 at the location where a Buddhist relic (the cremated remains of Buddha’s body) had been discovered. The Qibotai, on the other hand, was constructed by Empress Wu Zetian (r. 690–705), the only empress regnant in Chinese history, who also installed a series of stone Buddhist reliefs as decoration.

This series of Buddhist reliefs features two styles of composition: ones depicting a buddha triad, and ones that depict a single buddha or deity. The former type can be classified further into three depending on the pose and/or hand gesture (mudra) of the central buddha: a buddha seated with legs folded performing the bhumisparsha mudra (Jp. gōma-in) that symbolizes the expulsion of evil, a buddha seated with legs folded performing the abhaya mudra (Jp. semui-in) that symbolizes fearlessness, and a seated buddha with feet touching the ground performing the abhaya mudra. Single-image niches typically feature the bodhisattva Ekadashamukha, the eleven-headed manifestation of Avalokiteshvara (Jp. Kannon). According to the inscriptions on the works, the triads featuring a central buddha with legs folded performing the abhaya mudra represent the buddha Amitabha, while the ones with a buddha seated with feet touching the ground performing the same mudra represented Maitreya Buddha. There are also variations in iconography among the buddhas performing the bhumisparsha mudra; some wear crowns, while others sit upon a shumi pedestal or a lotus pedestal. These may have roots in representations of the historic Buddha, Shakyamuni, that were popular in India at the time.

The buddha sits on an octagonal pedestal with legs crossed at the center of this niche, his feet resting above the opposite lap. He holds his right hand in an abhaya mudra, and rests his left on his knee. A double halo illuminates his form from the back. Two attendants stand to either side of him: the one to his left is holding their hands together, while the one on his right stands on a lotus pedestal holding a water jar. Part of the attendant on his left is missing. Parasols hang over all three figures’ heads, but what makes this work unique is in how the “parasols” of the two attendants are in fact formed by blossoming lotuses still attached to stems stretching from below. This feature is, in fact, not found on any of the other niches from Baoqing Temple.

The rectangular space at the bottom bears the names of court officials, including Feng Fengyi and Mo Shunzhi, which tells us that the niche was dedicated by multiple people.