Stylistically this stele relates very closely to the group of Northern Dynasties stone sculpture including figures of Buddhas, bodhisattvas and steles, discovered in a large cache at the Longxing Temple, Qingzhou, Shandong, in 1996. The large temple site was probably founded in the Eastern Jin period (317-420 A.D.) and existed for about a thousand years after its establishment. The importance of the find lies not only in its size, but also the art historical continuum represented from Northern Wei to Northern Qi.
The present stele is a fine example of some of the Northern and Eastern Wei sculptural traits from Qingzhou and other sites, such as the loose outer garment covering both shoulders, the smiling more angular faces, and the more sharply defined hair. By contrast the Northern Qi figures show fuller modeling with greater monumentality, more rounded faces, and simply defined, light, clinging robes. This gradual change shows evidence of the later influence of Gupta sculpture on some of the sculpture of the Northern Qi. A Northern Wei figure from Qingzhou with such an angular face, linear robes with pleats at the feet and similar flattened U-shaped fold at the chest was included in the exhibition Masterpieces of Buddhist Statuary from Qingzhou City, The National Museum of Chinese History, Beijing, July, 1999, pp. 48-49. See, also, op. cit., pp. 50-51, for two heads of Buddha, one with applied gold and one with polychrome decoration, both with very similar facial features, narrowed eyes and tightly curled hair; p. 59 for a closely related Eastern Wei gold and polychrome stele of a Buddha and two bodhisattva and p. 65 for a Northern Wei stele. Refer, also, to the article by Xia Mingcai, 'The Discovery of a Large Cache of Buddhist Images at the Site of Longxing Si', Orientations, June 1998, pp. 43, fig. 4 for a leaf-shaped stele with a single Northern Wei Buddha with an angular face, flattened U-shaped folds at the chest and petal-form halo.
The iconography of the dragon and the lotus in such a linear, yet dramatic form appears to be specific to the sculpture of the Shandong region, although the exact meaning is as yet unclear. Comparable examples of Northern and Eastern Wei steles with this motif are illustrated in Masterpieces of Buddhist Statuary from a Qingzhou City, National Museum of Chinese History, Beijing, July, 1999, pp. 60, 61, 62, 80 and 81. See, also, the stele with a pair of related dragon motifs illustrated by Saburo Matsubara in Chuugoku Bukkyo Chokukushi Ron (The Path of Chinese Sculpture), vol. 1, Tokyo, 1995, no. 286a. In the present lot, the bowl that the dragon appears to be pushing may point to the longstanding association of dragons in Chinese culture with life-giving rains and the harvests.