As the Roman Empire continued its long decline in the west; in the East, the rise of a new Chinese Dynasty was taking place: The Northern Qi.
Following the collapse of the Han Dynasty in the early third century, China suffered almost 300 years of war and political turmoil.
Commonly known as the Period of Disunion, it was characterised by violent power struggles between a succession of small kingdoms and repeated invasions from beyond the Great Wall. People were also arriving from the exotic lands of the east such as Persia and India and this influenced a transformation of Chinese art and culture in the north.
We may now look back at the Northern Qi Dynasty that followed this turmoil as a time of cultural convergence and cosmopolitanism, which included one of the most significant transformations of the time – the adoption of Buddhism from the east.
This convergence of Chinese culture with foreign influences produced a distinctly different style of art to that of southern China where Confucian values and the traditional 'Chinese' identity in political, cultural and religious life were being preserved.
Although the Northern Qi Dynasty only lasted about 100 years, it would have a significant impact on Chinese art for centuries to come. Buddhism brought a profound peaceful influence and with it began a distinctive minimalist style of art in line with Buddhist principles that would eventually spread throughout China.
Along with this distinctive style of art came innovative ceramic production techniques that would continue to be refined for centuries to come. Importantly due to these and other remarkable achievements, the Northern Qi Dynasty may well be considered the precursor to what is arguably the beginning of the Chinese Renaissance of art during the Tang Dynasty.
Most impressive in scale were the incredible Buddhist cave temples and the sculptures held within them, of which the limestone statue pictured above is an example.
Most Northern Chinese cave temples were established by Imperial decree. Originating in Central Asia, these vast monuments were hollowed out from rock outcrops and decorated lavishly within. It was considered that the very act of creating these monuments was an act of piety resulting in the accrual of merit and spiritual liberation.
The 6th Century cave complex at Xiangtangshan, established by Imperial decree, exemplifies the importance of Buddhism in the life and culture during the time of the Northern Qi dynasty.
A Northern Qi Dynasty Gilded Limestone Sculpture Of Buddha, c.550-577 AD 153 x 40cm, sold AU$29,000 (image)
The Northern Qi statue (top), is an example of the quality of material culture that is consigned with us. Originally from the collection of a Hong Kong resident, this work was purchased by an astute Australian collector at one of our past auctions.
Of museum importance and quality the sculpture exhibits superb detail and craftsmanship. Standing above a separate lotus base wearing a diaphanous robe, his left hand raised in vitarka mudra and his right hand in bhumisparsa mudra, the fine-featured visage with serene expression flanked by pendulous ears below a wavy coiffure and top knot at apex, gilded and decorated with polychrome mineral earth pigments.
A similar work was sold by Sotheby’s New York, Fine Chinese ceramics and works of art, March 31 and April 1, 2005, lot 86.
- The Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney, Australia, exhibition 2008, ‘The Lost Buddhas’
- Xiaoneng Yang (ed) 1999, The Golden Age of Chinese Archaeology; Celebrated Discoveries From The People’s Republic of China, National Gallery of Art Washington, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Yale University Press New Haven and London