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Mogao Cave 290 (Northern Zhou 557-581AD)
Author: Published:2014.3.21 Views:

This is a central-pillared cave, with a flat ceiling around the pillar and a gable ceiling in the front part of the cave. In caves of this period, there is only one niche on each side of the pillar, instead of the earlier design with one niche on the front (east) side and two (upper and lower) on the other sides. The design on the gable ceiling is no longer imitating the wooden rafters or floral designs; instead, they have illustrations of Buddhist stories.


Figure 1: Main niche in central pillar 

All the statues are original in this cave (Figure 1). The Buddha in the main niche wears his robe in closed mode. This statue, with its bigger head, rounder face and shorter torso features, is slightly distinguished from statues of the previous period.

Around the top of the four walls are apsaras (flying celestials) holding different musical instruments on a white background. There are 156 apsaras in total, flying one after another in a continuous band (Figure 2). Apsaras are also seen on the flat part of the ceiling, but on a blue background with a reddish-brown frame showing the fabulous and more mature colour combination of the Northern Dynasties. They dress in loose robes and have chignon (hair bun), and are all depicted as immortals in Han style. The Chinese had interpreted apsaras as immortals; thus, they were called ‘fei-xian’ (flying immortals) in some early inscriptions.


Figure 2: Apsaras, north wall 

On each slope of the gable ceiling are the striking narrative illustrations of the Life of Sakyamuni — these are in place of the usual red rafters. There are three registers on each slope running in an “S” sequence, from the top right corner to the left and back again (Figure 3). The story consists of 87 scenes with more than 200 figures, and is 27.5 m in length. It is the most detailed and delicate Buddha’s life story in Dunhuang.


Figure 3: Buddha’s life story (partial view), east slope

It begins with The Conception, in which Queen Maya dreams of the Bodhisattva (Buddha-to-be) riding on an elephant and descending to earth. The next scene is The Birth in which Queen Maya is holding onto a tree as the infant prince is born. The prince is being showered by water sprayed from the mouth of the nine serpents (the Chinese like to call them dragons). The next scenes are: The Four Encounters (he sees an aged man, a sick man and a corpse representing all the sufferings in the world, and then a mendicant monk representing a way to liberation); The Great Departure (he leaves his father’s palace to search for the meaning of life); The Enlightenment (he subjugates King Mara, all the illusions and temptations, and attains enlightenment under an Indian fig tree, which is thereafter called bodhi tree); and The First Dharmacakra (or The First Sermon---the Buddha gives his preaching to his first five disciples in Saranath after attaining enlightenment).

In this mural, the images of the figures and their garments, the palace, the means of transportation, etc., are all sinicized. Chinese buildings, trees or inscriptions are used to separate the scenes, keeping each of them independent and emphasizing the prominent images. The scenes, such as the farmer ploughing, the archery and weightlifting competitions, the prison, the funeral procession, the mourning at the roadside, etc., all exhibit contemporary local customs. A figure holding a flag and riding on a dragon on top of the hearse is guiding the soul of the deceased to heaven. It is a typical Daoist practice combined with the traditional ceremony. All of these provide the best sources to study Chinese society at that time. The painting style is inherited from that of the 3rd century. Painting in horizontal sequence, as well as on a white background, was adopted from the horizontal scroll drawings of metropolitan China.


Figure 4: Taming the horse, west side of pillar 

Another excellent work is an outlined painting on the east side of the pillar called Taming the Horse. By using a few simple strokes, the artist was able to realistically depict the vigorous actions of the jumping horse and the nomadic tamer staring at it (Figure 4).