Buddhist stele (佛碑像), Unified Silla, jeweled tree (寶樹), Amitābha (阿彌陀), Maitreya (彌勒)
Stone steles served multiple purposes in different cultures: as a territorial marker, an edifying tablet, a political edict, a votive altar, a funerary monument, or a celebratory reminder of remarkable individuals or events. Chinese steles carved with images of Buddhist deities are monuments that testify to the process of adoption and adaptation across different cultural traditions. As products of the Buddhist appropriation of non-Buddhist Chinese steles, steles with Buddhist imagery are hybrids.
The visual dialogue between two realms—the mortuary and the religious—underwent another twist when Buddhist steles first appeared on the Korean peninsula in the seventh century. The carvings on Korean steles displayed the usual prominent Buddhist deities and the formulaic language of a dedicatory inscription, but were made in the former territory of a defeated kingdom under a new administrative reign. Hence, they tell us about the fluctuating boundary between political entities, the social identity of the donors, and desired destinations of the devotees. Although “set in stone,” they never easily manifest a single fixed reading of the visual messages embedded in them.
In order to better understand the paradoxically fluid character of unyielding stone, this article discusses some anomalous elements of these steles. Focusing on a few peculiar examples of steles from 6th century China and 7th century Korea, this article explores the roles of subsidiary motifs, such as trees and pavilions, found across geographic/cultural borders.