Among the collection of Chinese Buddhist sculptures in the Gardner Museum’s Chinese Loggia is the limestone Votive Stele. This notable piece--dating from 543--was purchased by Isabella Stewart Gardner from the Russian art collector Victor Goloubew in July 1914, via Mrs. Gardner’s chief art advisor Bernard Berenson. The front of the stele presents in high relief the Buddha Sakyamuni in the center, whose right hand is held in the “fearless gesture” (abhaya mudra) and his left hand in the “charity gesture” (vara mudra). He is attended by the young disciple Ananda and the old disciple Kasyapa, both with shaven heads and attired in monastic robes. The Buddha is further flanked by the bodhisattva Maitreya to his right, who holds a flask, and the bodhisattva Manjusri to his left. The two bodhisattvas respectively embody Compassion and Wisdom. The iconic ensemble as such, unique in China, gained currency in the early sixth century.The universal salvation advocated by the Lotus Sutra is further dramatized in the scene carved in low relief on the back of the stele, based on the chapter “The Emergence of Many-Treasure Stupa.” The Buddha Sakyamuni, about to enter Nirvana, or the “Great Extinction,” joins Prabhutaratna, the ancient Buddha from the past and distant land, in the latter’s stupa, which hovers in the air. Sakyamuni then transports the entire ensemble witnessing the spectacle into Buddha’s realms.
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