Shenzhen Museum – Dunhuang Part 1 Dunhuang Grottoes

This is a special collaboration between the Shenzhen Museum and the Dunhuang Research Institute 敦煌研究院. The exhibition ran from Dec 2021 – Mar 2022, and I had the luck to see it without a massive crowd too.

Dunhuang Grottoes exhibition in Shenzhen Museum circa Jan 2021

The exhibition was divided into four main parts; the first section in the hall of the museum was 1:1 replicas of the artefacts found in the Dunhuang Grottoes; the second section was artefacts collected from the ancient Silk Route; the third section showed the daily lives of the people during that time through artefacts; and the final section showed the Buddhist artefacts used during the Sui-Tang Dynasties.

Dunhuang Grottoes

Dunhuang Mogao Grottoes 敦煌莫高窟

Dunhuang Mogao Grottoes 敦煌莫高窟, located at the eastern cliff of Mingsha Mountain 鸣沙山东麓断崖 in the southeast of Dunhuang City, is the largest existing Buddhist grottoes temple site in China, as well as the Buddhist art remains with the longest history, relatively complete preservation, richest content and the most exquisite art in the world.

Dunhuang Grottoes emerged in the Wei, Jin Dynasties and the Sixteen Kingdoms Period when silk road trade flourished between the east and west. They reached their peak in the Sui and Tang dynasties, and were excavated in the Five Dynasties, the Northern Song Dynasty, the Western Xia Dynasty, and the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty for nearly a thousand years.

According to statistics, there are 492 caves, more than 45,000 square meters of murals, 2,415 painted sculptures and more than 4,000 Apsara and Gandharva statues in Dunhuang Grottoes, all of which are precious cultural relics for studying the history and art of ancient Chinese Society.

Dunhuang Grottoes are the common achievements of different ethnic groups cooperation. The murals and statues of Dunhuang Grottoes fully show the wisdom and exquisite skills of ancient artists, which has enriched Chinese artistic conception and aesthetic connotation.

This exhibition reproduces four representative caves of Mogao Grottoes, including cave 285 (Western Wei Dynasty), cave 220 (early Tang Dynasty), cave 320 and cave 45 (the Height of Tang Dynasty). Supplemented by the manufacturing process of grotto excavation, mural painting and color sculpture making, we can get a glimpse of the beauty and profundity of Dunhuang art

莫高窟第285窟 Mogao Grottoes Cave 285

西魏 (公元538-539年) Western Wei (AD 538-539)

莫高窟第285窟 Mogao Grottoes Cave 285

Mogao Cave 285 is on the second floor in the middle section of the Mogao Grottoes South. Donor images and vow verses on the north wall inside the main chamber clearly indicated the cave’s building date was between 538 and 539 A.D. during the Western Wei Dynasty (535-557A.D.). Some scholars postulated the sponsor of this cave was Yuan Rong, or Prince Dongyang, the fourth-generation-grandson of Mingyuan Emperor of the Northern Wei dynasty. The writings on the wall made this cave one of the earliest among Dunhuang caves to have a definite construction date.

The main chamber of Mogao Cave 285 has a truncated pyramid ceiling on top of a square floor plan. There remains a square podium in the cave center left from the Yuan Dynasty. The entry-facing west wall has one large and two smaller arched Buddhist niches with a preaching Buddha and two meditating monks statues inside, respectively. There are four small empty meditating niches on each of the north and south walls, some with remains of small tower structures in the front, also from the Yuan Dynasty. The central caisson ceiling was decorated with a large lotus. The slopes of the ceiling and walls of the cave were painted with stories from Chinese and Indian mythology and religion.

The caisson ceiling was decorated with a large lotus flower in the center. Surrounding curly grass and curtains extends into the ceiling slopes. Figures from Chinese mythology and Buddhism, such as religious beads, heavenly guards, and apsaras fill the slope surfaces. On the east slope, there painted Nuwa and Fuxi, creators of the world acocrding to Chinese mythology. The whole ceiling mimics a heavenly canopy of immortals with clouds floating by. On the surrounding edges of the ceiling are 36 monks meditating under this canopy in the mountain caves, showing the theme of meditation for this cave.

Inside the large arched niche on the west wall sits a preaching Buddha. On his sides are two smaller niches with a meditating monk sitting in each. Both of them are in a state of deep meditation, sitting in lotus pose while forming the Dhyana mudra. The monks statues were housed in smaller niches to mimic natural mountain caves. Although some of the features of the statues were damaged, such as the face of the Buddha was gone, one can still tell the statues are slender and elegant. The flame patterns at the Buddha’s back were skillfully drawn to give a blazing feeling.

Images of Buddhist karma and jataka stories, apsaras, musicians, Bodhisattvas, and donors are all over the four walls. The elements and techniques used in the artworks have both Chinese and Western origins, showcasing the cultural and religious exchanges around the time period. Despite the variation in styles, all paintings encompass the theme of meditation. It is one of the most rich-in-content caves among early Dunhuang caves.

莫高富第220窟 Mogao Grottoes Cave 220

初唐(公元618-712年) Early Tang Dynasty (618-712 AD)

莫高富第220窟 Mogao Grottoes Cave 220

Mogao Cave 220 is one of the most important caves from the early Tang dynasty in the Mogao Grottoes. It features an inverted funnel-shaped ceiling. On the west (main) wall is a niche with statues, the south an illustration of the Amitabha Sutra, the north an illustration of the Eastern Medicine Buddha Sutra, and the east an illustration of the Vimalakirti Sutra.

In 1943, after peeling off paintings of thousand Buddhas from the Song dynasty, the Dunhuang Academy exposed the well-preserved early Tang dynasty murals in the cave, together with ink inscriptions indicating the year 642 A.D. on the front and right walls, which provided evidence for the year of the mural paintings.

Mogao Cave 220 is located in the middle section of Mogao Grottoes South. The cave was first constructed in 642 A.D. in early Tang Dynasty. This cave is also called the “Zhai Family Cave” because it was sponsored by the then Dunhuang local noble Zhai family.

Truncated pyramid ceiling inside Mogao Cave 220. 莫高第220号窟覆斗形顶

The main chamber has a characteristic truncated pyramid ceiling, similar to Cave 285. The west wall was carved into a large niche with Buddha statues inside. This set up was a main form of cave design in the Tang dynasty.

During the Song or Tangut Empire, all the mural paintings in this cave were covered with paintings of thousand Buddhas. Not until 1944 when the Dunhuang Academy peeled off the top layer did the masterpieces from the early Tang dynasty reappear. Every mural painting in this cave is a masterpiece of its kind.

Amitabha’s Western Pure Land, mural painting, Mogao Cave 220 south wall.

The whole south wall was painted with Amitabha’s Western Pure Land. Amitabha is sitting in the middle on a lotus throne, with both hands forming the Dharmachakra (turning of the wheel) mudra.  Avalokitesvara and Mahasthamaprapta Boddhisattvas stand by the Buddha’s sides, forming the “Amitabha triad”. There are double tree canopies on top of Buddha’s head, apsaras and musical instruments in the air.

Children coming out of lotus flowers, section of the Western Pure Land mural painting, Mogao Cave 220 south wall.

The lotus flowers bear nine flower buds that transform into children playing in the lotus pond, representing entry into the western paradise through lotus flowers.

The “Seven Treasure Land” underneath the pond is a place that has Bodhisattvas, musical performances, and fortune birds flying, depicting a happy and peaceful life.

Mogao Cave 220 north wall Medicine Buddhas (Oriental Pure Land) Transformation Illustration.

The north wall is the Medicine Buddha’s Eastern Pure Land. The Seven Medicine Buddha on the right wall was painted according to the “Medicine Buddha Sutra”. The main characters are the seven Medicine Buddhas. The Medicine Buddha is the Buddha of the Oriental Pure Land of Lapis Lazuli. They are the Doctor Kings that heal all illnesses. He has two attending Bodhisattvas, the Suryaprabha (Sunlight) and the Chandraprabha (Moonlight), and twelve Medicine Heavenly Kings, protecting all from illnesses and hardships.

Mogao Cave 220 main niche statues

Inside the main niche sits one Buddha and two of his disciples, all have been repaired in later generations. The paintings inside the niche ceiling are mostly gone. Those remained still have bright colors with clear red outlines attributing to many years being covered under the Song dynasty paintings. The painted Bodhisattvas illustrated the gorgeous, detailed and peaceful artistic style of the early Tang dynasty.

The hallway of this cave was covered with paintings from the Tangut Empire period. After moving the entire hallway, the mural paintings from the Tang dynasty were exposed. Those paintings have clear outlines and colors like new. The left wall has a Buddhist niche, inside has paintings of the preaching Sakyamuni, the Medicine Buddha, and the Maitreya.

In the center of the right wall, there are paintings of Manjusri Budhisattva. Manjusri Bodhisattva holds a Ruyi in his right hand and mounts on his lion . The lion attendant holding the rein wears a red hat, a red robe, and wool boots. Above him is inscription writing “offering Khotan king…”. The Khotan King reining the lion for Manjusri demonstrates the Khotanis worship of Manjusri Bodhisattva.

Vimalakirti Sutra transformation depicts the famous debate between Vimalakirti, a wealthy, benevolent, and wise layperson Buddhist practitioner and the Manjusri Bodhisattva.

Vimalakirti holds a fly-whisk, sits inside the net, leans forward, and shows signs of illness, but his gaze is bright, arguments strong, and spirits high, making a vivid portrait of him.

Inscription describing the donor of the grotto Zhai Fengda

Because Dunhuang is closely tied to Khotan, which has marriage relationships with the ruling Cao Family in the area, it is of no surprise to see Khotani Buddhism idols appear in Dunhuang. Next to the Manjusri Bodhisattva are portraits of the Avalokitesvara and Manjusri Bodhisattvas standing. Underneath are donors, the noble Zhai family of Dunhuang. The donor Zhai Fengda 翟奉达 is a famous person during the Cao Reign.

莫高窟第320窟 Mogao Grottoes Cave 320

盛唐(公元712-766年) Height of Tang Dynasty (712-766 A.D.)

Located on the middle section of the Southern Area, Mogao Cave 320 was constructed in the heyday of Tang and renovated in the Middle Tang, Song and Yuan dynasties.

Cave 320 is one of the representative caves in the heyday of the Tang Dynasty. It is also the smallest of the caves in this exhibition, with a bucket-shaped roof and a Buddhist niche on the west wall. The statues of the Buddha in the niche in the west wall, including the wall and the mural on the top, are very exquisite. Only one statue of Buddha, one disciple Kassapa, and two bodhisattvas remain. Disciple Ananda disappears.

The ceiling of the niche highlights a preaching scene of Maitreya, in which two disciples, four bodhisattvas and two heavenly kings stand in order. There, heavenly kings wear chain mail and tabards which can protect the legs in battles. There is no such example in other preaching scenes in Mogao. On the walls of the niche are eight disciples and two bodhisattvas in gorgeous costumes. An image of Avalokitesvara is painted on either side of the niche.

The ceiling center depicts a peony surrounded by cloud patterns. On the four sides are various decorative patterns, such as the motif of two partly overlapped squares, half medallions, diamond lozenges, medallions, and draperies in red, blue and green colors, looking bright and fresh.

The four slopes of the ceilings are covered with the Thousand Buddha motifs. Comparing this ceiling with the one in Cave 285, the difference is very big. The shape and color of the Tang Dynasty were more complex and changeable and magnificent, while the Western Wei Dynasty was simple and concise.

Most of the illustration on the south wall was severely damaged by Langdon Warner who tried to peeled them away. The upper part of the picture includes four intact flying apsaras scattering flowers in two symmetrical but dynamic groups. The former looks back, echoing the movement of the latter one. In composition, the narrow blank along the upper brim is used artfully. This is one of the representative picture of Apsara of Early Tang period at Mogao.

The upper part of the picture includes four intact flying apsaras scattering flowers in two symmetrical but dynamic groups. The former looks back, echoing the movement of the latter one. In composition, the narrow blank along the upper brim is used artfully. This is one of the representative picture of Apsara of Early Tang period at Mogao.

The north wall is covered with the illustration of Amitayurbhavana-sutra with the pure land in the center and two side scenes illustrating the stories of the Sixteen meditations and of the stories Between King Bimbisāra and Ajātaatru, similar to the illustration of the Amitabha in composition. This illustration creates an elegant ambiance mainly in blue, green and black, focuses on the incarnated boys on the lotuses in the pond, auspicious birds and beasts, as well as musicians. It represents a style of the same themes of the High Tang dynasty.

The space above the entrance wall is filled with the Thousand Buddha motifs, and the south side of the entrance depicts two Bodhisattvas above a male donor figure (vague) painted in the Song dynasty; the north side are two bodhisattvas of the Song dynasty and a worshipping bodhisattva of the Yuan dynasty.

莫高窟第45窟 Mogao Grottoes Cave 45

盛唐(公元712-766年)Height of Tang Dynasty (A.D. 712-766)

Stucco statues on the west wall

Mogao Cave 45 was constructed in the heydays of Mogao Caves. There used to be nine bodies of statues, but the two warriors on the outside have been destroyed; therefore, leaving only seven statues preserved to date. This group of figures are replicas of the stucco statues enshrined in the niche of its principal wall. The superb artistry demonstrated by these works has rendered them the most representative group of high Tang statues found at Mogao Caves.

These well-preserved stucco statues demonstrate the classic grouping of one buddha, two disciples (Ānanda on the left, Kāśyapaon the right), two bodhisattvas (Acolyte bodhisattva) and two heavenly kings (Virūḍhaka, the Heavenly King of the South on the left, Vaiśravaṇa, the Heavenly King of the North on the right).

The rest of the spaces on the ceiling and the walls behind the statues are painted with the images of the other eight principle disciples of the Buddha, other bodhisattvas, the Eight Classes of Celestial Beings (Buddhist guardian deities) and apsaras to create a complete preaching scene of the Buddha in the Pure Land. The niche, the statues and the painting complement each other to result in a three-dimensional preaching scene.

This group of statues with well-captured forms and expressions epitomises the varied images of different people of the high Tang dynasty. The varying status and personality of the Buddha and each of his acolytes are vividly represented. The solemnity of the Buddha, the modesty of his disciples, the feminine charm of the bodhisattvas and the formidableness of the heavenly kings are appropriately demonstrated.

Actual Cave 45 (© Dunhuang Academy)

This seven-figure grouping has been thoughtfully composed and arrayed to attend to the visual perspective of the worshippers. The seven statues are horizontally and more or less symmetrically arrayed on both sides of the Buddha statue, and all with eyes looking downward. When a worshiper kneeling in front of the niche raises his head to gaze at the statues, he would feel that every statue is gazing at him with compassion.

Another characteristic of this grouping is the ingenious blending of sculptural and painted art. For instance, six painted images of bodhisattva are inserted between seven statues to form an integral whole.

Furthermore, a gemmed canopy is painted on the top of the wall behind the statues of the Buddha. The ceiling of the niche is decorated with a mural illustrating an episode in the chapter Visualising Prabhūtaratna (Abundant Treasures) Stūpa contained in the Saddharma puṇḍarīka Sūtra (Lotus Sūtra). It shows Buddha Śākyamuni and Buddha Prabhūtaratna (Buddha of Abundant Treasures) sitting across each other inside the Prabhūtaratna Stūpa. The stūpa is flanked by an audience of bodhisattvas.

Guanyin of the Universal Gateway in Mogao Cave 45. 705-781 CE. Late Tang Dynasty

It is generally agreed among Chinese Buddhists and scholars of Buddhist studies that the figure Guanyin is the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. The painting is divided into three parts. The portrait of the Avalokitesvara is in the middle, looking dignified and kind with a full face, jade eyebrows and bright eyes, and dressed in a silk cape and jewelry with glittering precious stones, appearing gorgeous but not garish.

Detail of the some of the forms Guanyin takes when s/he manifests on Earth

The 33 manifestations of Avalokitesvara, which are the different incarnated characters of the Avalokitesvara preaching Buddhist doctrine to different believers, were painted on the upper part. At the lower part are various highly realistic scenes of acts taken by the Avalokitesvara to different requests from the common folks. 

On Cave 45’s north wall is an illustration of the Amitayurdhyana Sutra. The Western Pure Land depicted is consistent with that in the illustration of Amitabha Sutra, which tries to represent the prosperous scenes from the Western Paradise. In the painting, palaces and towers emerge from the Seven-treasure Lotus Pond, featuring curved columns and terraces that appear majestic and spectacular. The Buddha of Amitayurdhyana is sitting cross-legged on a lotus throne, while the Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva and the Mahasthamaprapta Bodhisattva are standing on his sides.

The story of Ajatashatru and Sixteen Contemplations were painted on the sides of the Pure Land scene. The story of Ajatashatru tells that story of King of Bimbasara’s son, Prince Ajatashatru, who kept his father Bimbasara as a prisoner in the palace without food or water. His queen mother, Vaidehi, covered herself with honey and flour to feed the king. Upon discovering that, the prince attempte to kill his mother, but was stopped by his ministers and instead kept his mother in prison. Lady Vaidehi devoted heself to the practice of Buddhism. The mural shows the plots of the story from bottom up. The scenes of the Sixteen Contemplations on the left are Lady Vaidehi’s sixteen kinds of contemplations in an attempt to be reborn in the Pure Land in the West.

Caisson ceiling of Cave 45

Cave 45 features a square floorplan, an inverted funnel-shaped ceiling with round flowers in the caisson center and Thousand-Buddhas on the slopes.

Doesn’t this remind you of a scene from the Star Wars Episode III?

As one of a typical cave dating from the High Tang dynasty in the Mogao Grottoes of Dunhuang, Cave 45 represents a unity of form and spirit. The lifelike sculptures and well-depicted characters in the murals are a direct reflection of the lives of the folks of different classes at the time. 

Making the Mogao Grotto

The first caves were dug out in AD 366 as places of Buddhist meditation and worship; later the caves became a place of pilgrimage and worship, and caves continued to be built at the site until the 14th century

The cave-temples are all human-made, and the decoration of each appears to have been conceived and executed as a conceptual whole. The wall-paintings were done in dry fresco. The walls were prepared with a mixture of mud, straw, and reeds that were covered with a lime paste.

Many of the figures have darkened due to oxidation of the lead-based pigments from exposure to air and light. Many early figures in the murals in Dunhuang also used painting techniques originated from India where shading was applied to achieve a three-dimensional or chiaroscuro effect

Another difference from traditional Chinese painting is the presence of figures that are semi-nude, occasionally fully nude, as figures are generally fully clothed in Chinese paintings. Many of the murals have been repaired or plastered over and repainted over the centuries, and older murals may be seen where sections of later paintings had been removed.

The sculptures are constructed with a wooden armature, straw, reeds, and plaster. The colors in the paintings and on the sculptures were done with mineral pigments as well as gold and silver leaf. All the Dunhuang caves face east.

Shenzhen Museum of History and Folk Culture

Shenzhen Museum was founded in 1981. It consists of 4 museum sites including Shenzhen Museum of History and Folk Culture, Shenzhen Museum of Ancient Art, Dongjiang River Guerrilla Command Headquarters Memorial Museum and Shenzhen Reform and Opening-up Exhibition Hall. 

Located in Shenzhen Civic Center, the Shenzhen Museum of History and Folk Culture, opened in December 2008, takes up 12,500 square meters of land, and covers a construction area of 33,600 square meters. The exhibition building has a total of 3 floors, including 5 basic exhibition halls and 2 special exhibition halls, with an exhibition area of more than 10,000 square meters. The ground floor is a storehouse of cultural relics. In addition, the exhibition building also has multi-functional report Hall, VIP Hall, teahouse, souvenir shops and other ancillary service facilities.

Opening hours : 10:00~18:00 (Visitors are not allowed to enter the museum after 17:30. Closed on Mondays. Open during major festivals and closed the first day after major festivals)

Visited in Jan 2022

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