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Mogao Cave 79 (High Tang 705-781AD)
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Figure 1: Zaojing and Thousand-Buddha motif


    This is a square cave with a truncated pyramidal ceiling. The zaojing has a complicated lotus pattern in the centre, surrounded by several bands of different designs (Figure 1). On the four slopes is the colourful Thousand-Buddha motif.

The nine stucco statues in the main chamber were repainted in the Five Dynasties and Qing, but the original features of the Tang still remain. The Buddha has a round face looking like a Chinese emperor, while the four Bodhisattvas are feminine, plump and elegant. They look like supple, charming Tang beauties. Flanking the Buddha are his two disciples, one old and one young. The young disciple is Ananda. The old one has been identified as Kasyapa by most scholars, but he could be Maudgalyayana (as indicated in inscriptions found in manuscripts currently in the Guimet Museum, Paris, France) or Sariputra. The two muscular-looking devarajas are dressed as generals.

 

 

Figure 2: Man flaying a serpent, niche wall

On the wall at the back of the niche behind the statues are six panels with landscapes and figures painted on it. The depictions are very lively. They all have beautiful trees of different shapes. In one panel (Figure 2), under the willow trees a hunter is flaying a serpent, while on the top-left a person is flying into the sky on a cloud. In another panel (Figure 3), a child is standing in a strange way in front of a Buddha. The Buddha’s left hand is in meditation mudra, but it is not clear enough to tell what mudra his right hand is showing — possibly fearlessness, preaching or something else. The boy is clasping his hands and standing on his right foot with the other one raised. However, the meaning of the depictions of these panels remains a mystery.

Panels were used as screens and decoration in Chinese furniture and became popular in early Tang. The panel design in this cave is one of the earliest examples in Dunhuang. Later, in the middle Tang, it became popular to have panels painted below the main theme on a wall containing depictions to provide additional explanations of the main theme.

 

Figure 3: Child standing beside a Buddha


    The ceiling of the niche has a new design. Like that of the cave, it is also a truncated pyramidal ceiling except that it is rectangular. Chessboard floral patterns as well as full and half floral combination designs fill the ceiling. This design began to become popular at that time and prevailed, especially in the Song and Western Xia. On the ceiling slopes are Buddhas and Bodhisattvas: seven Buddhas flanked by two Bodhisattvas are on each of the east and west slopes, while three Buddhas and two Bodhisattvas are on each of the north and south slopes. They are all standing and surrounded by flowers.

 

Figure 4: Patterns between ceiling slopes 

Thousand-Buddha motifs are on the east, south and north walls, as well as the ceiling slopes. The mandorla of the Thousand Buddhas are painted with the coloured shading technique, yun-ran, which was introduced to Dunhuang in the Northern Dynasties for painting images of people. In the Tang, the technique was sinicized and applied to paint other designs as well (Figure 4).

Figure 5: Naked boys serving to fill the spaces between ceiling slopes 

A notable feature in this cave are the tiny images of naked boys filling the spaces at the end of some of the rows of the Thousand-Buddha motif on the slopes (Figure 4 & 5). These lovely, active cherubs are dancing, playing or lying prostrate. One is doing a handstand. They are masterful plain drawings, and provide rich information about Chinese painting of children’s dance.

The florets next to them (located on the band at the edges between slopes), are shaped like a peach, a heart or a fan, and all have multi-layers of colours applied by yun-ran on each petal.


The Thousand-Buddha motif on the north side of the east wall is also special because the Buddhas are all sitting with pendent legs. This is the only such example in Dunhuang.

The thousand-armed and thousand-eyed Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva on the south wall of the antechamber is one of the early examples of a Vajrayana Buddhist image found in Mogaoku. The earliest Vajrayana images in Dunhuang appear in the Sui caves, while its practice was very popular in China during the Tang.