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Mogao Cave 57 (Early Tang 618-705AD)
Author: Published:2014.3.16 Views:

This is one of the most prominent caves of the Early Tang. It is small and square with a double-recessed niche on the main wall, in a style prevalent in the Sui (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Main niche (west wall).

In the niche is a group of statues consisting of the Buddha, two disciples and three Bodhisattvas (the fourth one was destroyed). The Buddha smiles serenely, and his face is a bit oval-shaped. The pleats on his robe are folded lightly and curved like waves, which gives it a natural look and feel of textile. The Buddha statue has a different look than that of the Sui, which is characterized by a round face and a garment folded in deeper pleats. However, the Bodhisattvas are as slim as they were before.

The skillful combination of the colours of the robes in the Thousand-Buddha motif, located on the wall above the niche, creates a triangular pattern that serves as the top of the shrine.

The paintings in this cave are gorgeous. Those on the wall inside the niche are particularly well preserved. One of them is a Bodhisattva in a pensive pose (Figure 2). Another one is in a dancing pose, holding a blossom in his right hand. The poses of those images are very soft, and their hands are as beautiful as those of a young woman. The contours of their eyes are painted with Indian and Nepalese influences, curved with two waves like the letter “S” placed horizontally.

Figure 2: Bodhisattva in pensive pose, niche

The Avalokitesvara on his right (Figure 3) was known as “the most beautiful Guan-yin in Mogao.” His swinging jewels and flying sashes give one the feeling that he is turning toward the Buddha. Besides the crown with a Buddha on it, he wears many bejeweled ornaments. All of them are embossed and gilded using the li-fen-dui-jin technique. The dazzling colours of this image are impeccably preserved. His flesh is delicately tinted by the Indo-Sino yun-ran (colour shading) technique to match his graceful bearing. In this painting, he is viewed more as a beautiful woman than a Bodhisattva.

There is also a Pure Land scene on the north wall. The apsaras flying at the top appear lively and rhythmic. Some of them are scattering petals with both hands, while others are dancing with flying sashes or scarves (Figure 4). These images are more curvaceous and natural than earlier ones, and have influenced later depictions of apsaras.

On top of the narrow wall space outside the niche are two riders. The one on the right side is riding an elephant while the one on the left is riding a horse, representing the Conception and the Great Departure of the Bodhisattva (Prince Siddharta, who was called Sakyamuni after enlightenment), respectively. The elephantis still depicted in Indian style. The Bodhisattva is sitting cross-legged on the elephant, descending to his mother’s palace and accompanied by two standing saints. All of them have peach-shaped halos. The Bodhisattva, riding on the horse in the scene of the Great Departure, is painted in Chinese style. The prince is quietly leaving his parents’ palace. Each of the hoofs is held by a devaraja to avoid making any noise. (Later, these four devarajas become the Heavenly Kings, Guardians of the Four Directions.) Both of these scenes have apsaras scattering flowers to celebrate the events.

Figure 3: Avalokitesva ( Guan-yin), south wall

In the centre of the south wall is a painting of a preaching scene surrounded by a Thousand-Buddha motif. Amitabha’s face and his bared right shoulders were originally gilded, but the gold has now been lost. However, many of the other gilded details still exist.

Figure 4: Apsaras scattering flowers, north wall