Mogao Cave 220 (Early Tang Dynasty)

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Mogao Cave 220 Interior

Mogao Cave 220 is one of the most important caves from the early Tang dynasty in the Mogao Grottoes. It features an inverted funnel-shaped ceiling. On the west (main) wall is a niche with statues, the south an illustration of the Amitabha Sutra, the north an illustration of the Eastern Medicine Buddha Sutra, and the east an illustration of the Vimalakirti Sutra. After the Song dynasty mural cover was peeled in 1943, well-preserved early Tang dynasty paintings resurfaced, along with two title inscriptions in ink dated to the 16th year of Zhenguan (642 A.D.) on the east and north walls, providing exact timing of the mural paintings.

Portrait of the Samantabhadra Bodhisattva, Mogao Cave 220 west wall south

The niche on the cave’s west wall used to have statues of a Buddha and two disciples created during the Tang dynasty, but they had all been rebuilt in later dynasties. The mural on the niche’s ceiling was damaged, but it could be seen that the reamining part was well preserved with bright hues and clearly visible red linings. The group portraits of Bodhisattvas illustrated the gorgeous, exquisite and peaceful artistic styles of these niches during the early Tang dynasty.

Dancers, Mogao Cave 220 south wall

The illustration of the Western Pure Land on Cave 220’s south wall features the earliest and the most spectacular scenes of the Pure Land among all mural paintings in the Mogao Grottoes. According to Buddhist scriptures, the Pure Land in the West is free of diseases, disasters and disturbances. The illustration consists of three parts, the bottom earth, the middle water, and the above sky. Inside the terrace on the rippling Seven Treasure Pond are the Western Triad: the Amitabha Buddha sitting on the lotus seat, the two attendant Bodhisattvas, Avalokitesvara and Mahasthamaprapta, standing on the two sides. Behind them are stone pillars and clouds, as well as towering Buddhist temples with gorgeous colors. The two Attendant Bodhisattvas are wearing silk gowns with brocade shawls, standing with solemn expressions. The features and expressions of the figures illustrated the appreciation of fitness and plumpness during the Tang dynasty. As their fair skin begins to turn brown, the natural change had enriched the colors with the passage of time. The Western Triad is surrounded by more than 150 other characters in the painting. They are well-arranged according to primary and secondary dependencies, and are interspersed. The earth at the bottom features the seven-treasure railings, towers and pavilions in symmetry, and a floor covered with gold forming a glazed world. The dancing scene in the middle features musicians and dancers. Parrots and peacocks also spread their wings to to the tempo, creating a scene of peace and joy.

Dancers, Mogao Cave 220 north wall

The illustration of the Medicine Buddha Sutra on the north wall was based on the Sutra of the Medicine Buddha Preached by the Buddha, where the main characters are the seven Buddhas of Medicine. The Medicine Buddha is the leader of the Pure Glazed World in the East and the Great Medicine King, and can treat the birth, death, illness and old age of all beings and creatures. He is accompanied and assisted by the two Attendant Bodhisattvas of Suryaprabha and Candraprabha, as well as the Twelve Yaksha Divine Generals, protecting all beings and creatures from suffering. The picture mainly features the seven Buddhas of Medicine in the Pure Land of the East, with eight Bodhisattvas standing on the left and right. The treasure terrace at the center of the pond is built with red and blue glaze, giving it a splendorous appearance. Bodhisattvas lean against the railing of the terrace, holding a lotus flower and putting palms together to pay respect to the Buddha. On the rippling surface of the pond, the lotus flowers are in full bloom. On both sides of the terrace are divine generals and holy beings. Above the divine generals is Asura, who has three faces and six arms, and below is a Vajra Guardian who appears furious. The divine generals in the picture are wearing armors and coronets decorated with animal images. Among the animals, a snake, a rabbit and a tiger can be identified. The Twelve Divine Generals correspond to the Twelve Zodiac Animals. In the sky above the Seven Buddhas, Apsaras are flying in front of the winding stream of the pond. In front of the Medicine Buddha is a light tower of the Central Plains style and a light wheel of the Western Regions style. In the light of the “lamp mountain and fire wood” is the grand spectacle of dancing and music performance. The musical bands on the two sides consist of 28 members total, who are sitting on two square carpets. With different skin colors, the musicians are playing a total of 15 different kinds of musical instruments, such as those by the Han people from the Central Plains, the percussion and wind instruments of the ethnic minorities in the Western regions, and string instruments from foreign lands. The two groups of dancers are dancing gracefully in the blazing light, with one group of dancers waving their arms and ribbons, their locks of hair flying in the air, seeming to be whirling around; the other lifting their arms and feet, jumping and leaping freely. They are likely performing the Hu Twirling dance and the Hu Jumping dance from Central Asia.

Three Buddhas Preaching the Dharma, Mogao Cave east wall above the entrance
Potrait of an emperor, Mogao Cave 220 east wall north to the entrance
Vimalakirti, Mogao Cave 220 east wall south to the entrance

The illustration of the Vimalakirti Sutra on the east wall was based on the Vimalakirti Sutra. This important classic is about the eloquent lay person practitioner Vimalakirti, who had a debate with the Manjusri Bodhisattva. When Manjusri came to learn about Vimalakirti’s condition, the lay person elucidated the theory of the Mahayana Buddhism. On the south side of the entrance is painted the scene of Vimalakirti showing his condition, on the north the scene of the Manjusri asking, and above a scene of three Buddhas preaching the Dharma. Vimalakirti is holding a horsetail whisk and sitting with both hands resting on his knees by a bed curtain. His body leans forward, looking a bit sick, but his eyes give a piercing look and appear to be in high spirits. Standing in front of the bed are princes from different countries who came to listen to the sermon. They vary in appearances, skin colors and costumes as well as facial expressions, representing different ethnic groups, which had never appeared in other paintings before the Tang dynasty. The Manjusri Bodhisattva is sitting at ease with a dignified bearing and a calm demeanor, forming a contrast with the impassioned Vimalakirti. Standing on the ground are kings and ministers who have come with Manjusri to attend the sermon. The portraits of the emperors are equal in superioritywith the famous painting Scroll of Emperors of Past Dynasties by Yan Liben, a renowned painter in the early Tang dynasty.

The surface of Mogao Cave 220 hallway was covered with murals from the Northern Song dynasty. After it was relocated the mural painted when the corridor was rebuilt during the 2nd year of Tongguang (925 A.D.) (during the Later Tang Dynasty in the period of the Five Dynasties) was revealed. The painting shows clear line drawings and well-preserved colors. A niche was carved on the south wall, inside were three murals of the Sakyamuni Buddha, the Medicine Buddha, and the Maitreya Buddha preaching the Dharma. All were painted during the Middle Tang dynasty. On the north wall is a new styled painting of the Manjusri Bodhisattva during the Later Tang Dynasty. The Manjusri Bodhisattva is holding a Ganoderma-like dharma vessel in his right hand, sitting upright on the back of a green lion. The lion handler is wearing a red brocade cap, a red robe, and a pair of felt boots, holding the rein in his hand. Above the lion handler is a title inscription written in ink that reads, “The King of Khotan was moved to believe in the Great Saint…”, indicating it was the King of Khotan who is leading the lion for the Manjusri Bodhisattva. This shows that at the time, the Manjusri Bodhisattva was widely worshiped in the Khotan region. Since the Dunhuang Guiyijun regime Cao had formed close ties with Khotan, and formed alliances through marriage, the idol of Buddhism in Khotan also appeared in Dunhuang. On the two sides of the painting is a standing portrait of the Manjusri Bodhisattva and the Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva. At the lower part are portraits of donors from the Zhai family, an influential and privileged family in Dunhuang. The benefactor of the murals Zhai Fengda was a famous figure in the Cao regime of Shazhou during the period of the Five Dynasties.

Zhai Family donors, Mogao Cave 220 hallway north wall

Murals in Mogao Cave 220 have high artistic values. Their grand sceneries, gorgeous colors, and lifelike figures, reflect the great minds, prosperity and splendor of the time when the cave was established, and the igniting the flourishing charm of the upcoming Tang dynasty.