North Cave at Northern Xiangtangshan
The North Cave at northern Xiangtangshan is the earliest and most impressive construction of the entire complex. Although it lacks a dedication inscription, it was probably sponsored by the emperor Wenxuan (reigned 550–59), the first ruler of the Northern Qi dynasty.
Completed during the 550s and popularly known as the Great Buddha Cave, the North Cave is a forty-foot cube. The massive central square pillar is surrounded by four perimeter walls with relief decoration framing deep niches, which contain freestanding sculptures carved from quarried stone.
The cave's design was meant to convey the eternal nature of the Buddha. It was inspired in part by a holy text called the Lotus Sutra, which became extremely influential during the fifth and sixth centuries. The seventh chapter of the sutra tells of a king who gave up his empire to seek enlightenment and become a Buddha; this pious act moved his sixteen sons to follow the Buddhist path. The patriarch of the Northern Qi dynasty had fifteen recorded sons and likely another, so this theme would have been especially fitting as a statement of the enlightened rule and authority of the royal family.