Tejaprabha Buddha and the Five Planets, ink and colours on silk

From Cave 17, Mogao, near Dunhuang, Gansu province, China
Tang dynasty, dated 4th year of Qianning (AD 897)

The planets in human form

This painting shows a very rare form of the Buddha, named in the inscription as Tejaprabha Buddha, the 'Buddha of Blazing Light'. He is seated in a moving chariot, which is also very unusual, as Buddhas were mostly shown seated in a frontal position.

The sutras evoking the Tejaprabha Buddha all associate him with the planets, stars and constellations. This painting, which is the earliest dated representation of the subject, shows the Buddha surrounded by the five planets. The planets are represented in human form, in many ways similar to the way the planets were shown in western culture from Greek times. Venus is shown as a beautiful woman playing the pipa (Chinese lute), Mars as a red warrior, although here with four arms. Jupiter is an official carrying flowers. Mercury, associated with information, is shown as a scribe with brush and paper, although here as always in Chinese art, as a woman. Saturn is an old Indian man, here leading his attribute, the bull. The other planets wear their animal attributes in their headdresses.

This painting is a good example of the way that various cultural influences shaped the iconography of painting at Dunhuang, as the planets had not been shown in human form before the arrival of Buddhism in China. Chinese sutras gave specific descriptions of the human form of the planets, most probably influenced by Indian scriptures, which in turn may reflect influences deriving from Greece and even Babylon.

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More information


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


Height: 80.400 cm
Width: 55.400 cm

Museum number

Asia OA 1919,1-1,0.31


Gift of Sir Marc Aurel Stein


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