Avalokiteshvara, ink and colours on silk

From Cave 17, Mogao, near Dunhuang, Gansu province, China
Five Dynasties, dated the 10th year of Tianfu (AD 910)

The central figure of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, has his usual attribute of the Buddha Amitabha in his headdress. He stands against a background of bamboo stems, upon a floating lotus. He holds a willow spray in his raised left hand and a flask on his right.

The two figures that flank the bodhisattva have been depicted in great detail, and it is clear that they were intended as portraits. An inscription on the back of the painting identifies the shaven-headed figure on Avalokiteshvara's right as the Very Reverend nun Yanhui. The small white cartouche above the young man to the left identifies him as the probationary Chamberlain Zhang Youcheng. The inscriptions were written by his elder brother, the author of the main dedicatory inscription in the green cartouche. He makes an offering for the peace of the empire and on behalf of his elder sister and teacher and the souls of his deceased parents.

The inscription within the white cartouche is dated '... the tenth year of Tianfu reign, year gengwu, seventh month and fifteenth day ...', which corresponds to 22 August 910. However, the Tianfu reign officially ended in 904, and the Tang Dynasty was deposed in 906; Dunhuang's remoteness must have meant that there were considerable delays in receiving news of events.

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More information


M. Aurel Stein, Serindia: detailed report of e, 5 vols. (Oxford, 1921)

R. Whitfield, Art of Central Asia: The Ste-1, vol. 2 (Tokyo, Kodansha International Ltd., 1982-85)

W. Zwalf (ed.), Buddhism: art and faith (London, The British Museum Press, 1985)

A. Waley, A catalogue of paintings recov (London, 1931)

R. Whitfield and A. Farrer, Caves of the thousand Buddhas: (London, The British Museum Press, 1990)


Height: 770.000 mm
Width: 489.000 mm

Museum number

Asia OA1919.1-1.014


Gift of Sir Marc Aurel Stein


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