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Mogao Cave 55 (Northern Song 960-1127 AD)
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Figure 1: Altar

Compared with the earlier caves, the Song caves are broader in scale. This cave, as well as Caves 61, 98, 454 and 100, was constructed by the local rulers, the Cao clan, between 962 and 974. They are all huge and similar in design.

There are two layers of paintings on both sides of the large corridor. The top layer was painted in the Western Xia (1036-1227). Paul Pelliot, the French archeologist who carried off the best of the treasures from the LibraryCave, somehow was able to locate the exact positions of many inscriptions of the early Song paintings hidden underneath the Western Xia layer. He removed the top layer for the purpose of uncovering the inscriptions which contained the names and titles of the donors.

The altar in the cave (Figure 1) has a horseshoe shaped dais with statues of three Maitreya Buddhas sitting with pendent legs, three Bodhisattvas (the fourth is missing), an old disciple (the younger one Ananda is missing) and two devarajas (in general form, Figure 2). The statues are attractive, plump and elegant. The Buddhas’ heads are small in proportion, but the Bodhisattvas, especially their postures, are quite well done. Their figures and clothing are in the Tang style although they were made in the Song Dynasty.

Figure 2: Dharma guardian, altar 

The three groups of Maitreya symbolize his three assemblies. According to the sutra, when Maitreya comes to earth, all sentient beings will reach enlightenment by attending one of his three assemblies under the Dragon-flower trees. It shows that the faith of Maitreya was still popular at that time.

The small devaraja supporting the throne of Buddha on the south group is not the usual solemn style. It might simply be the spontaneous creation of the artists.

Since the Late Tang, many more sutras became popular. A cave with only a few illustrations of Pure Landor jingbian (illustration of sutras) was not enough to satisfy people’s needs. The presentation of numerous sutras in a cave became a new trend. This cave is one of the few with the most — it has16 jingban —on its walls.

Figure 3: Illustration of the Golden Light Sutra, south side of east wall  

The illustration of the Golden LightSutra, an important sutra at the time, and additional information in the adjacent vertical margins are detailed and still well preserved (Figure 3). On the north side of the main theme (preaching scene), Prince Sattva sacrifices himself to feed the starving tigress and her cubs. On the south side is the story about Jalavahana, a merchant’s son, who saves ten thousand dying fish by ordering elephants to bring water to the river.

Among the contents in this cave, other than the most popular theme, such as theLotus Sutra, theAvatamsaga Sutra is also very important in Mahayana Buddhism. However, its complicated philosophy is very difficult to express in painting. Therefore, the murals can show only the nine meetings of the Buddha’s preaching of this sutra in seven places, and a huge lotus to symbolize the universe. Another important teaching is the Sutra of the Wise and Foolish which contains 169 stories (parables) collected from the tales of the Buddha and his disciples from various sources. It explains the causality between good and evil, as well as wisdom and foolishness. It is believed this sutra was composed by the Chinese, since no copy in any other language has been found.

Some of the sutras are very rare and their illustrations can be found only in Dunhuang. Examples include the Linkavatara Sutra, a philosophical discourse attributed to the Buddha as delivered on MountLanka in Ceylon, has only twelve depictions painted between the Middle Tang and Northern Song; as well as theUsnisa Vijaya Dharani Sutra which helps people purify all evilkarma (deeds) and eradicate karmic obstruction.

Figure 4: Narrative of Prince Good Friend, South wall  

All these paintings are very detailed and lively. For instance, in the mural illustrating the story about Prince Good Friend who travels with his brother on the sea looking for the wish-fulfilling jewel to save their country, the dragon-king’s palace and people’s activities (Figure 4) are depicted vividly reflecting the actual way of life of that period.