- Museum number
Painting fragments showing one seated and two standing Buddhas under a jewelled canopy, a monk and a group of figures carrying a ladder. Some of the fragments were originally registered as OA 1919,0101,0.58. Ink and colour on silk.
- Production date
- 7thC-8thC (circa)
Height: 44 centimetres
Height: 90 centimetres
Width: 125 centimetres
Width: 58 centimetres
- Curator's comments
From Whitfield 1983:
This painting, as related in the Introduction to Vol. 1, has for over fifty years been divided between the British Museum and the National Museum of India. It is among the most important of all those in the collection, since it is an example of the kind of record brought back from India by travelling monks, showing the most famous images of Buddhism. This is not to say that this painting was itself painted there-rather it is a composite picture bringing together many images from different places. Many of them, in fact, have associations with Khotan, and even with Gansu, rather than with India directly. Nor is the painting alone in providing such a repertoire of images from India and Khotan: Pelliot’s photographs, published in 1931, show similar collections of famous images as part of the ceiling decoration in Caves 231 and 237, and on a whole wall in Cave 220 (Grottes, Pls. CLXⅧ,CLXXⅥ,CⅪ). In Cave 231 there are thirty-five figures on the four sloping faces of the ceiling over the main niche, each figure with an inscription which has been recorded by Xie Zhiliu 謝稚柳(Dunhuang yishu xulu 敦煌藝術敘錄,pp. 103-05). Some thirty-five figures are also visible in Pelliot’s Pl. CⅪ, showing the south wall of Cave 220 as it was at the time of his visit. Unfortunately the inscriptions were not recorded by Xie Zhiliu.
In the early 1940s this cave was found to have splendid and well-preserved paintings of the early Tang under these thirty-five figures which dated from the Five Dynasties. The later paintings were sacrificed to reveal the early Tang compositions beneath them. Pelliot’s photograph (also Lo Archive, no. 220-7), therefore, is all that remains as a record of them.
Like the lost wall painting of Cave 220, the silk painting originally had rows of images one above another. Its present divided state and the severe damage and losses it has sustained make it a difficult painting to assess, and these difficulties have led to its inclusion in the present volume, rather than in the first volume where by its probable date it should properly belong.
A consideration of the physical state of the painting may help in forming some idea of its original appearance. In the first place it is necessary to understand that the mounting (at the time of writing) of the British Museum portion is totally misleading. Professor Alexander Soper’s excellent article “Representations of Famous Images at Tun-huang” (1964-65, pp. 349-64) shows this mounting in his Fig. 2, and the New Delhi portion in Fig. 1. Only Pl. LXX in Serindia shows the largest British Museum fragment in its correct relation above the New Delhi portion. For this reason it has seemed best, in the monochrome plates to this volume, to present the British Museum fragments separately, and to add a drawing which shows how several smaller misplaced fragments should be arranged (Fig. 9d). As this volume goes to press, remounting of the fragments is in progress. A more comprehensive reconstruction and study of the whole painting must await an opportunity of seeing the New Delhi portion and the possible identification of further fragments. For the present a brief description must suffice.
The whole painting consisted of four rows of images, here referred to as A, B, C and D, the figures executed in outline but with a certain amount of ink shading and colour ornamentation. Cartouches of various shapes and sizes were fitted in as the seated or standing figures they described would allow. The largest British Museum fragment from the top of the painting (Fig. 9a) also has a very small piece of purple silk border, which defines the left edge of the painting. The fragment shown in Pl. 11 similarly similarly shows traces of the right-hand border, and may also come from the top of the painting. If it does, then the painting was originally made up of approximately three and a half widths of silk, the seams being indicated by dotted lines in Fig. 9d. No seam is present in Pl. 11, so there must have been a complete width of silk at the right edge of the painting.
Below, the principal fragment assigned to New Delhi (Stein, Thousand Buddhas, Pl. ⅪⅤ) consists of three rows of images, principally in their correct relation to one another, except for some very small fragments and one seated figure which has been moved from row C to row B. Its present place in row Brightly belongs to the fragments shown in Fig. 9b. They too show that most of the right-hand side of the painting is still missing. Finally, one large fragment in the British Museum (Fig. 9f), until now mounted upside down, has, as already described in Serindia, part of a female donor in seventh to eighth century dress next to the ruled space for a dedicatory inscription. The most likely position for this inscription which surely had a male donor on the other side and possibly other subsidiary donors as well, is at the bottom, immediately below the four rows of images. I have assumed this in suggesting the possible original size of the painting as about 3 m by 2 m; thus it can be seen that in size as well this was one of the most important paintings discovered by Stein. It has to be hoped that examination of any further fragments will help to complete the reconstruction.
We should now turn to the individual figures shown in the British 9a (and the drawing Fig. 9d) shows, first of all, two standing Buddhas, each with a canopy. Though fragmentary, enough can be made out of the two figures to determine that one is in vitarka - mudra; the other grasps the hem of the robe with his left hand while the right hand is lost. But no explanation has been offered, though dunhuang Cave 237 likewise has “two Buddhas side by side”. Separated from the two Buddhas by a tall narrow cartouche (no longer legible) is a large figure of a Buddha in a red robe, seated with legs pendent, under a larger canopy. Again, no explanation can be offered to identify this figure. To the right again, there appears a pair of men holding a ladder and gazing upwards at a missing image. A tiny fragment of bare feet on the other side of the images is all that remains of the rest, but the ladder is a distinctive clue to a story of a thief who wished to steal the jewel from the forehead of an image; although in longer accounts the ladder was never quite long enough, “all accounts agree that eventually the statue bent over out of pity to offer the jewel” (Soper, 1964-64, p. 363).
The next fragment, at the right end of the top row, is that shown in colour (Pl. 11), depicting first of all a garlanded Bodhisattva, with a double row of Buddhas in his aureole, and then a standing Buddha with his arm raised and supporting the sun, in which is seen a phoenix. Soper has connected this with the “image shown pointing to the sun and moon” found in three of the caves, perhaps Sakyamuni after the defeat of Mara.
This completes the first row of figures. The second row, B, begins at the left in the New Delhi portion with Gautama at the time of his illumination at Bodh Gaya. Next, also in India, is a standing figure, the aureole filled with busts of Buddhas, representing the miraculous multiplication of Buddha-bodies by Sakyamuni at Sravasti. Third in row B is the seated figure shown in Fig. 9b, with legs pendent and multiple figures in the aureole, with a top segment of musicians. Next to it is the lower half of a standing Buddha in a red robe. Nothing remains to identify it, nor can any other fragments be placed with certainty in this row.
The New Delhi portion continues in row C, first with four smaller figures, then a Buddha seated on a dragon throne, followed by a standing image identified by the small deer at the top (and by a cartouche preserved separately at the British Museum) as the “Image in the Deer Park in the country of Varanasi in middle India”. Similar inscriptions are to be found in Caves 231 and 237 at Dunhuang. After this should come the seated image at present mounted in the row above in New Delhi, with crescent moons in the nimbus, with next to it a small fragment, two men in coats and top-boots, wrongly mounted in the British Museum next to the ladder scene.
Row D is also in the New Delhi portion. It features standing figures in rocky settings: Avalokitesvara on Mt. Potalaka and Sakyamuni preaching at the Vulture Peak. The inscription and donor figures probably came below this, as row E.
In this way all of the British Museum fragments have been accounted for, except for two Lokapalas standing side by side, of which only a very narrow fragment showing a hand grasping a trident and another hand holding up a stupa (Fig. 9c) remain. There is also a separate tiny fragment of a pennant. There is of course no way at present to determine the original position of these fragments, other than that, as the left side and centre of the painting are virtually intact, they must be from the missing right side. If further fragments from the painting prove to be identifiable, it may be possible to reconstruct parts of this side as well. What can be seen at present already shows that the composition was presented in an orderly fashion: at least three of the figures in row A have canopies, while the figure holding the sun in Pl. 11 also appears appropriate to the top of the painting; at the bottom, Avalokitesvara and Sakyamuni are in substantial rocky settings that give stability to the whole. One would expect this lowest row, D, to have one more figure in a rocky setting. Moreover, in rows B and C there is already a certain measure of symmetry, seen in the regular alternation of seated and standing figures, giving five large scenes originally in each row. One is left with the feeling that this was a well-ordered and monumental composition, not just a lining-up of images in random order.
Several interesting points emerge when we consider the style of these fragments and their iconographical origins. For the latter the reader will have to refer to Professor Soper’s article, already mentioned above. Here it must suffice to say that while some of the figures show images famous in India, others have strong associations with Khotan. Similarly, while the drapery of the figures shows close affinities with the art of Gandhara (and many details of the jewellery can be traced to Indian or Gandharan prototypes also), still other details seem to have been borrowed from earlier Chinese Buddhist art, such as the celestial musicans, following Northern Wei, surrounding one of the New Delhi figures: Soper, noting this, has shown that “the images shown were not intended to be exclusively Indian at all, and were in fact faithfully recorded” (Soper, 1964-65, p. 352).
Looking at the elegant outline drawing of the figures, we can see that it is chiefly dependent on a subtle continuous line, not greatly modulated. The canopies of the three first figures in row A can be compared with canopies of the early Tang at Dunhuang, a domed form with curving ribs recurved at ends. From these hang small bells, with a little shading or highlight and a tongue hanging beneath each. In later paintings from Dunhuang these “tells” lengthen and take the form of tassels with horizontal coloured bands. Other eighth century stylistic characteristics can be seen in the facial delineation of the figures, especially of the mouth, comparable to those of the figures in Buddha Preaching the Law (Vol. 1, Pl. 7); or in the way in which the petals of the lotus thrones are strongly modeled and in some cases elaborately decorated with small leaf sprays in red.
Thus, in these severely damaged fragments, there is still a monument of outstanding importance and of early date, which can furnish much information on the lost images, not only of the similar painting once in Cave 220, but of Khotan, once a leading centre of Mahayana Buddhism, and of India, the land of its birth.
From Whitfield 1983:
- Not on display
- Acquisition date
- Acquisition notes
- For full acquisition history, see 1919,0101,0.1.
- Registration number
- Additional IDs
Miscellaneous number: Ch.xxii.0023 (Stein no.)