- Museum number
- Object: Buddha Preaching the Law (樹下説法圖)
Large painting showing Buddha (probably Śākyamuni) preaching in a Paradise composition. The Buddha is seated under a jewelled bodhi tree forming a canopy, surrounded by four seated bodhisattvas and six monk disciples. A small figure of a female donor is in the bottom left-hand corner; the topknot of a male donor is visible in the bottom right. An apsaras is in the top right corner, and a blank carotuche in the front centre. Ink and colour on silk.
- Production date
- 701-750 (circa)
Height: 163.30 centimetres (Painting in frame)
Height: 139 centimetres
Width: 121.50 centimetres (Painting in frame)
Width: 102 centimetres
Depth: 4 centimetres (Painting in frame; including old fixing)
- Curator's comments
From Whitfield 1982:
This, one of the earliest among the paintings found in Cave 17 at Dunhuang, is also one of the best preserved and one that is clearly related to Sui and early Tang paradise or preaching scenes found on the walls of the caves themselves. Among the silk paintings, the closest parallel is the fragment of an Amitābha preaching scene from the Pelliot collection (Bannières, No.23). Several features seem to assure its early date: the composition itself; the colour scheme, both in the decoration of the canopy and throne and in the modelling of the figures; and the single surviving figure of a female donor in the lower left corner.
The main figure can probably be identified as Sākyamuni, although Amitābha, with Avalokitesvara and Mahāsthāmaprāpta, has also been suggested. His hands are in vitarka-mudrā, or mudrā of the exposition of the Law, common to both Amitābha and Sākyamuni. Clearly, however, the entire painting is comparable to examples of “Preaching the Law” from caves of the early Tang period (e.g., Caves 103, 321, 329). In these the chief intent was to suggest the omnipresence of Buddha by constant repetition of the same scene. The type can be seen as a development from preaching groups on the walls of Sui caves at Dunhuang, where there are in general only three figures, the Buddha and two Bodhisattvas (cf. Cave 390). In the present painting, in addition to the Bodhisattvas representing the Mahāyāna, or Greater Vehicle, the presence not just of two monks representing the Hinayāna, or Lesser Vehicle, but of six in all seems to favour the identification of the central figure as Sākyamuni, the historical Buddha with whom they would be associated. Presumably there simply was not room to depict all ten of Sākyamuni’s historical disciples. In later, more developed representations of the Pure Land paradises, whether on silk or as wall paintings (e.g., Pl.8) the disciples are still fewer, with two-Ananda and Kāsyapa-characterized in appearance as young and old respectively. Here, on the other hand, there are no obvious formalized distinctions, but the figures, and especially their bald heads, are carefully studied and drawn.
The painter’s concern with rendering the forms of the shaven heads is clearly apparent (Pls.7-2, 7-3). At the same time there is a decorative aspect to the depiction of the faces in the somewhat stylized scheme of colour shading and white highlighting that seems to be used almost independently of the outer contours in ink. We may see here, and in other paintings at Dunhuang, a fusion of the “aesthetics of light”(Bussagli, 1963, pp.31ff), which was a feature of the art of the West, with the tradition of modelling through line that was an inherent characteristic of painting and allied arts in China. We should not, however, draw too rigid a distinction here, since the shading of colours was in fact also practised in China (e. g., in the handscroll Admonitions of the Court Instructress, attributed to Gu Kaizhi, in the British Museum, especially in the garments and drapery hangings) from the period of the Northern and Southern Dynasties onwards. Nor does the stylization of the colour shading imply that the style as a whole is fixed and derivative. On the contrary, when examined closely, there are many lively details which exhibit a freshness of approach. All of the subsidiary figures are varied in pose and expression. At the lower left, one Bodhisattva is seen in three-quarter view from the back (though with the face in profile). Among the monks, two of whom are partly hidden behind the trunks of the Bodhi trees, there are many varied expressions of the eyes. Their eyebrows are drawn initially with single curved lines, over which are numerous shorter strokes in grey ink. In most cases these strokes are also curved and parallel with the initial line, but in the monk on the far left these paler strokes cross it vertically to give him bushy eyebrows. Again, one monk has his mouth open and teeth showing as if he is chanting. Here the line between cheek and mouth, normally brought close to the lips by the fullness of the cheek, is elongated and drawn back (Pl.7-3). A close parallel to this can be seen in the wall painting showing a monk reading from a sutra roll (Cave 201; Dunhuang bihua, Pl.109). As a further confirmation of the early eighth century A.D. date of this painting, the wall paintings of the tomb of Princess Yongtai (A.D. 706; Tang Yongtai gongzhu mu bihua ji, Pl.4) provides another contemporary example. By the late eighth century, the convention has changed and the line between the lips ends in a gentle swelling; later still (in the tenth century) this is elongated and terminated by a sharply angled hook.
The concern with three-dimensional form, already noticed in the monks’ heads, extends to the composition as a whole, where the central figure is left almost free, while those surrounding him occupy relatively less of the picture area. Some are even partially obscured behind the trunks of the Bodhi trees supporting the canopy. Although all the figures have haloes, only those of the two lower Bodhisattvas are actually opaque. The transparency of the rest adds greatly to the feeling of space (cf. Cave 334). The painter has also used his discretion here with a nice sense of relative values: thus the same halo (that of the monk behind the tree trunk on the right) is transparent in order to reveal the monk who stands behind him, but opaque to the uninscribed cartouche above (Pl.7-2). The effect is to focus attention on the main figure, as well as to give the whole setting a certain measure of depth. This feature is a Chinese, rather than a Western, contribution. Among the earlier compositions recovered by Stein from Dunhuang, none is more remarkable in this respect than the great embroidery showing Sākyamuni Preaching on the Vulture Peak (Vol.3, Pl.1). There the figures of the two monks emerge as if from behind the Bodhisattvas on either side, leaving clear the rocky background of the central figure, and contributing not a little to the impressiveness of the whole composition. Later, in the tenth century particularly, the distinctions and relative importance of figures of the Buddha and his attendants seem to be lost, or rather forgotten in the need to fill the available surface evenly with colour and decoration.
To return to the painting, several further features distinguish it from others and serve to link it both with paintings in the caves and with possible parallels that must have existed in the capital, Chang’an, hundreds of miles to the east. The surviving donor (Pl.7-5), a young lady demurely seated with a lotus flower in her hand, clearly recalls in her neat hair and high-waisted dress the funerary figurines and wall paintings of court ladies from princely tombs of the very early eighth century near Chang’an. Her face and the dark black of her coiffure are admirably set off by a side bud from the stem of the lotus throne above her, and she holds a long-stemmed red flower with pairs of opposing leaves. Although only the top of the cap of the male donor is visible, plumes of smoke curling gently upward towards the central Buddha throne show that he originally held a hand censer. In the centre foreground, the space left and ruled (although never actually used) for a dedicatory inscription takes the form of a monumental stele of the type well known from the beilin in Xi’an, supported on a tortoise and crowned by intertwined dragons. Although the dragons are here replaced by a floral design of overlapping petals, this is manifestly the explanation of the semicircular cap, and there is even a rectangular space left, which on an actual stone stele would have served for the title in formal characters (Fig.15). Similar stelae for dedicatory inscriptions are also found in some of the wall paintings (e.g., Cave 335, dated A.D. 686), as well as in Stein painting 499 in New Delhi (Stein, Thousand Buddhas, Pl.XI), and are contributory evidence of reasonably close and frequent contact between Dunhuang and the capital, such as could only have occurred in the period before the area came under Tibetan control in A.D.781.
Among the wall paintings at Dunhuang, so far as can be judged from photographs and reproductions, preaching groups in Cave 329(Lo Archive, no.1361), Cave 103 and Cave 321 are the closest to this painting. In Cave 329, the Buddha’s right hand is in vitarka-mudrā, as in the Stein painting. The canopy above has a net fringe and cloud-like embellishments framed by the foliage of the two Bodhi trees. The lotus throne on which the Buddha sits, although not so embellished, has compressed petals similar to those seen in the Stein painting. Below it the space for the inscription may also be based on a monumental tablet with a capstone. Cave 321, high on the east wall above the entrance, has the group spread horizontally; the two monks both face in the same direction (Lo Archive, no.842). In both these groups the attendant Bodhisattvas, as well as the Buddha, have the tall horseshoe-shaped haloes, bearing some resemblance to the oval ones of the lower Bodhisattvas in the silk painting. There are similarities, too, in the shading, highlighting and delineation of the face of the preaching Buddha on the south wall of Cave 103(Lo Archive, no.1229). There we find the same convention for the transition from the cheek to the mouth, already described for the chanting monk. This cave is generally dated to the period of the Empress Wu in the late seventh century A.D., and may serve to confirm the early eighth century date here attributed to Stein painting 6(Pl.7).
Other features also invite comparison with the wall paintings. These are the clouds above the canopy and those which decorate the petals of the Buddha’s lotus throne. The canopy clouds, ridden by apsarasas scattering blossoms (Pl.7-6), belong to a long tradition stretching back, no doubt, to the earliest wall paintings of the Liang dynasty, long since lost at Dunhuang through the collapse of that part of the cliff that had contained the earliest caves. In this preaching scene, as in other paintings of early Tang date (Cave 329), the clouds are composed of separate plumes, each a different colour and delicately shaded. This formula was to be considerably simplified in the course of the ninth and tenth centuries A.D. at Dunhuang. The cloud plumes on the petals of the lotus throne give a similarly rich effect: they can be compared not only with similar decoration in the wall paintings (for instance the decorated halo and lotus petals of an eleven-headed Avalokitesvara in Cave 334) but with actual lotus pedestals of the mid-eighth century A.D. preserved in the imperial repository of the Shōsō-in, Nara, whose individual petals are richly painted in various colours (Shōsō-in no kaiga, Pls.109ff).
Before concluding these notes, it is appropriate to make a few comments on the construction of the painting, which is in ink and colours on fine silk. As with all the larger silk paintings, the size of the silk to a considerable extent determines the size of the finished panel. A single width of silk runs down the centre of the painting. The width of this piece is 53. 7cm. A second piece, cut down the middle into two equal halves, is sewn on, selvedge to selvedge, to the first piece. The cut edges on the sides of the painting should originally have been protected by a sewn-on border of doubled silk. In this case, however, the border has disappeared. We may infer from the fact that the half-widths are now only some 23. 7cm wide that about 3 cm on either side has also been lost. This assumption is confirmed by reference to the lotus thrones of the main Bodhisattvas, which need another centimetre or two to be complete. Nor is there anywhere any trace of stitching of the four borders. Along the top and left edges, however, about 1cm from the edge, an ink line has been ruled, and this may have marked the limit of the design when it was first laid out. It would seem that a certain amount of lateral compression was already necessary for the painter in order to fit in the many figures: note, for example, the rather vertical petals at the sides of the lotus thrones of the two main Bodhisattvas and the slight degree of asymmetry. Yet it is partly as a result of this asymmetry and the varied stances of the many figures that the painting is one of the most satisfying among those found at Dunhuang. One is left with the impression that here solutions to problems of representation were still being sought, rather than of rigid adherence to established prototypes.
From Whitfield 1982:
This, one of the earliest and best-preserved paintings from Cave 17, is related to Sui (AD 581- 617) and early Tang preaching scenes on the walls of the caves. Celestials scatter flowers on the assembly below where, among Bodhisattvas of the Mahāyāna, the six monks representing the Hīnayāna indicate that the central figure is probably the historical Buddha. The space left and ruled for a dedication takes the form of a monumental stele. The kneeling lady donor is in early 8th-century costume; her husband on the right is now lost except for the smoke from his incense-burner.
- Not on display
- Exhibition history
1996 14 Jun-29 Sep, London, The British Library, The Mythical Quest
2007 8 Feb-5 Aug, BM Gallery 91, 'Gods, Guardians and Immortals: Chinese Religious Paintings'
2013 5 Oct – 29 Dec, London, Victoria and Albert Museum, The Making of Chinese Masterpieces: Chinese Painting from the 8th to 19th Centuries
2016 7 May-4 Sep, Los Angeles, Getty Research Institute, Cave Temples of Dunhuang: Buddhist Art on China's Silk Road
- Acquisition date
- Acquisition notes
- For full acquisition history, see 1919,0101,0.1.
- Registration number
- Additional IDs
Miscellaneous number: Ch.liii.001 (Stein no.)