Mogao Cave 237 (Mid Tang Dynasty)

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Mogao Cave 237 is one of the representative caves from the Mid Tang Dynasty. It is a palace hall style cave with an inverted-funnel shaped ceiling and an antechamber. The main chamber features a square floorplan. A deep square niche with a truncated pyramid ceiling was carved into the front facing west wall, enclosing a smaller horseshoe-shaped Buddha bed niche inside. The four slopes of the niche’s ceilings were painted with holy images, a new subject in Dunhuang murals emerged during the Tibetan regime. There are a total of 37 images, classified into three categories: those from India and Central Asia, the Western Regions, and Hexi. The main chamber’s caisson ceiling features the the three-rabbits pattern and lotus flowers. The four slopes were painted with the Three-thousand Buddhas. The murals on the four walls of the main chamber are sutra transformations. The west wall was painted with illustrations of Manjusri and Samantabhadra Bodhisattvas; the east wall illustration of the Vimalakirti Sutra; the south wall the Lotus Sutra, Amitayurdhyana Sutra and Maitreya Sutra; the north wall the Avatamsaka Sutra, Medicine Buddha Sutra, and Devata Sutra. The lower portions of all walls were decorated with screen paintings.

Double-headed auspicious portrait of the Buddha, Mogao Cave 237 west wall niche west ceiling slope

One of the 37 holy images inside the niche on the west wall is a double-headed holy figure. The image was based on the story that took place in the State of Gandhara (the land of many fragrant flowers in Sanskrit). A poor man paid an artist with his hard earned money to create a portrait of Buddha Sakyamuni. Another person also paid the same painter to create a portrait of the Buddha Sakyamuni. The artist accepted money from both men, but only created one portrait. The artist showed the portrait to both men and said, “This is the portrait of the Buddha you wanted.” The two men looked at each other with confusion after seeing the Buddha with one body but two heads and four hands. The Buddha is dressed in Tibetan costumes and looks like an ordinary person looking up. The title inscription reads, “The two-headed Buddha is separated  above the chest, and integrated below the chest, which can change with the form.”

Tibetan Zambo paying respect to the Buddha, Mogao Cave 237 east wall

The east wall of the cave was painted with an illustration of the Vimalakirti Sutra, which was divided by the entry. The scenes of the “Vimalakirti showing his illness” and “Manjusri visiting” were painted on either side of the cave’s entry, sitting opposite to each other as if debating the Buddhist doctrines across the entry. Related chapters from the sutra were arranged above and below the two figures. In the chapter of “Expedients”, Vimalakirti is showing his illness as kings, ministers, princes, and officials all came to see him. In the picture, the crowned Chinese emperor and his ministers are standing below the Manjusri Bodhisattva, while the curly-haired and straight-nosed ethnic leaders, princes, and foreign ministers of various states are waiting below Vimalakirti. What is striking is that the Zambo of Tibet was painted in the center of the scene listening to the Dharma teaching. The Zambo is wearing  a red felt hat, with his hair braided on the temples. He is wearing a long tiger-skinned robe with a folded collar and buttons on the right side, a pair of black boots, a leather belt tied on his waist carrying a long sword. His neck is decorated with pearls. He holds an incense burner in his right hand and his left sleeve drapes down to the floor. He is standing under a dragon-headed canopy with curved handles, with a devout expression. Three attendants holding offerings lead the way in front of the Zambo, who is followed by 13 attendant courtiers and then heads of other ethnic minorities from the Western Regions. Some of them have a brown face and black hair, some are barefooted with their hairs bound up, and some wear felt hats. These are portrayals of historical ethnic minorities and foreign envoys from western China travelling along the Silk Road at the time. Depicted characters are not inferior to those in the famous painting “Portraits of Periodical Offerings” at all. Princes of different nationalities stand in the background to make the Zambo stand out. This group of figures stand in parallel to the emperor and ministers below the Manjusri Bodhisattva on the other side of the entry. After Zhang Yichao reclaimed Hexi in the second year of Dazhong (848 A.D.), the image of the Tibetan Zambo moved from the leading position to the back to be among the princes of various states, and the emperor of the Han people would become the leading figure again. This kind of shift is the reflection of social and political situations in the Hexi area at the time.

Screen painting on the south wall

The center of the south wall is painted with an illustration of the Amitayurdhyana Sutra. The picture is centered around the Amitabha Buddha, surrounded by an audience of holy beings and palaces with winding corridors. At the center stage, musicians are playing instruments and dancers performing. In the blue sky above, apsaras are flying in the colorful clouds. While the heavenly music is echoing in the air the pool is rippling on the ground. Mandarin ducks are playing in the water. All of these form a harmonious and peaceful pattern of the Pure Land. The top part paints the heavenly music, the middle the Buddha preaching, and the lower the scene of music and dancing. The Sixteen Meditations and the the Ajatasatru narrative are painted in the screen paintings at the very bottom, forming a new pattern.

There are many music and dance scenes in the illustrations in Dunhuang, but this one is particularly prominent with the depiction of playing the pipa behind the back. There are dozens of murals in the Mogao Grottoes that painted this dancing posture. Playing the pipa behind the back is the most distinctive and amazing dancing posture. In the picture, the celestial musician is carrying the pipa on the back. Her left foot touches on the floor, and her right leg lifted off jumping alternately. Dancers are flying the ribbons to a clear tempo with a calm and natural expression. Her big toes are lifted up as if responding to a certain tempo too. This special dance is under the influence of Indian dances. On both sides of the dancers are a band of eight musicians each, playing various musical instruments such as the Chinese harp, Ruanxian, pipa, zither, flute, pipe, lusheng, clappers and so on.

The art from Mid Tang Dynasty has lost the magnificent spirit exhibited in the art from the peak of the Tang Dynasty, but it carried on the increasingly fixed layout of the sutra illustrations, which was to present the concise, elegant, and soft style of the time. Mid Tang arts also carried forward the advantages of screen paintings, such as to strengthen the interior decorative effect inside the grottoes. They made Dunhuang art more secular. Art in Cave 237 was further jointly cultivated by the Han and Tibetan in the process of political and cultural exchanges.