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From Cave 17, Mogao, near Dunhuang, Gansu province, China
Late Tang or early Five Dynasties, late 9th - early 10th century AD
These large paintings were originally paired. Although painted on silk they are very similar to wall paintings of the same period in their style and iconography. It was common practice in the Mogao caves for two wall paintings to be executed facing each other: for example on the two sides of the cave entrance. For this purpose subjects with two groups of figures turning towards each other were shown: the bodhisattvas Samantabhadra and Manjushri were a popular choice.
Samantabhadra is shown riding on an elephant and Manjushri on a lion. Neither of these animals was then native to China, and the artists clearly had no first-hand experience of them: the white elephant has big, floppy ears and three tusks on each side; the lion is shown with decorative features popular in Chinese art.
The two bodhisattvas are depicted at a larger scale than the attendant figures: other bodhisattvas playing instruments and red-faced guardians with fierce, bulging eyes. The two dark-skinned figures represent the attendants of the animals. In tenth-century paintings they are shown as Central Asians, not as dark-skinned servants, as here.
The format of the paintings is puzzling, as the tops are rounded as if made for a vaulted cave. However, there are no vaulted caves at Mogao. They were very popular further west, in the Turfan region, at sites such as Bezeklik. Could it be the case that a workshop at Mogao prepared this painting for another site? As yet we have no evidence of such close collaboration, but cultural links are known.
R. Whitfield, Art of Central Asia: The Ste-1, vol. 2 (Tokyo, Kodansha International Ltd., 1982-85)
R. Whitfield and A. Farrer, Caves of the thousand Buddhas: (London, The British Museum Press, 1990)