This artwork is dated 687, during the Tang dynasty (618-906), and depicts the future Buddha Maitreya in a niche flanked by two monks and two bodhisattvas. Seven Buddhas of the past frame the central niche. Two lions sit astride an incense burner. The donative dedication of the sculpture can be seen in inscribed characters in the lower register on the front.
What are steles?
Buddhist steles are stone monuments bearing images and inscriptions, commissioned for installation in temples or monastic compounds, courtyards, or in rock-cut cave shrines. They probably developed from pre-Buddhist memorial stones used since the Han dynasty. They thrived as a sculptural form between the 400s and the 600s. Typically, the main figures in a stele sit or stand, directly facing the viewer.
Steles were usually commissioned by families or groups of individuals in the hopes of accruing spiritual merit for themselves, for the benefit of the current rulers, and for their ancestors and extended family. In this way, they satisfied the demands of a Confucian society, with its emphasis on family ties, and Buddhism, with its emphasis on spiritual salvation. The inscription on this stele typifies this type of dedication, and mentions the Emperor Gaozong and Empress Wu Zetian.
"The Buddhist disciple Muqiu Hashen prays for peace (health and happiness?) for all the members of his family. Reverently this image of the Buddha Maitreya is (offered for the) purpose that the Heavenly Emperor and the Heavenly Empress control all the myriad states, may deceased parents be incarnated in the Pure Land, and may the deceased souls of the last seven generations be free from sorrows and miseries. The image is worshipped with the whole heart by the entire family (including) the elders and young, close and distant (relatives). (The inscription then goes on to list many personal names.)"
What other religious beliefs are represented by these steles?
The belief in Maitreya was strong in the 500s–600s, approximately a millennium after the foundation of Buddhism, because it was widely believed that the first major era of Buddhism would end 1000 years after the lifetime of the historical Buddha. This millennial event would give rise to chaos and the eventual return of a future Buddha called Maitreya, who would lead the faithful to a paradise in the Pure Land. Furthermore, during this time, the Empress Wu Zetian promoted herself as the embodiment of a female Buddhist deity reborn as a universal monarch similar to Maitreya that had been “discovered” in a newly translated text called the Great Cloud Sutra.