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HOME : Chinese Art : Northern Dynasties : Northern Wei Brick from a Buddhist Shrine
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Northern Wei Brick from a Buddhist Shrine - AM.0271
Origin: China
Circa: 386 AD to 534 AD
Dimensions: 12.5" (31.8cm) high x 6.25" (15.9cm) wide
Collection: Chinese Art
Medium: Clay

Additional Information: Art Logic—Possibly from CJ Martin, 2007

Location: Great Britain
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The period between 386 and 581 CE in Chinese history is conventionally called the Northern and Southern Dynasties, when North China – under the control of the Tuoba clan of the Xianbei tribe (a proto-Mongol people) – was politically separated from, yet culturally connected with, the Chinese dynasties established in Jiankang (Nanjing). The Northern Wei rulers were ardent supporters of Buddhism, a foreign religion utilised as a theocratic power for ideological and social control of the predominantly Chinese population. In the south, meanwhile, Confucian intellectuals engaged themselves in Neo-Daoist debates on metaphysical subjects, and learned monks studied and propagated Buddhist ideas that were in some ways compatible with Daoist philosophy.

The Buddhist rock-cut caves at the site of Yungang, constructed under the Northern Wei imperial sponsorship near Datong in present- day Shanxi Province, were decorated with sculptural images made after Indian models. The earlier archaic style began to change as a result of increasing diplomatic contacts between North and South China, particularly after a series of reform policies implemented by Emperor Xiaowen (r. 471-99). Marked by the adoption of Chinese language, costume, and political institutions, the Northern Wei reform contributed greatly to an artistic and cultural amalgamation in sixth-century China, which was also manifested in painting, calligraphy, the funerary and decorative arts, and the style of the cave-temples at Longmen in Henan Province.

This Northern Wei brick from a Buddhist shrine testifies to the dynasty’s appropriation of the Buddhist religion. Each rectangular brick from the collection features a shallow recess to the upper face that encloses either a member of the Buddhist pantheon or a humble attendant. It is easy to distinguish between the two, as the former will be surrounded by an aureole or nimbus, while the latter will not. Heavy Indian influence is apparent, as evinced by the rounded forms that contribute to a general lessening of severity. Also Indian in fashion is the occasional dynamic posture that is reminiscent of the deities and dancers of the tantric sects found commonly in South Asia. Chinese, and even Xianbei influence is seen, however, in the long slender eyes that are recurrent throughout the collection. Such a fusion of continental styles was common in the Northern Wei dynasty. Curious, however, is the shape of each brick’s recess. Whether standing or seated on a plinth, there is no unified recess shape. Some are rectangular, others hexagonal, and many resemble the shape of a stupa (a dome-shaped structure erected as a Buddhist shrine) perhaps to match the brick’s greater entity.

While this brick would have originally served a highly functional purpose, today it is appreciated as a gorgeous work of art, treasured both for its beauty and history alike. - (AM.0271)


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