Mogao Cave 45 (High Tang Dynasty)

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Mogao Cave 45 Interior

Mogao Cave 45 is located at the lower level in the middle section of Mogao Grottoes South. Although there is no historical record of date of cave building, it can be deduced from observing the shape, murals and artistic style that the cave was built during the High Tang dynasty. Cave 45 features a square floorplan, an inverted funnel-shaped ceiling with round flowers in the caisson center and Thousand-Buddhas on the slopes. A flat-ceilinged wide niche was built on the cave’s main wall (west wall), in which seven statues of the Buddha, disciples, Bodhisattvas and heavenly kings stand. The south wall of the cave was painted with an illustration of the Avalokitesvara (Guanyin) Sutra, and the south the Amitayurdhyana Sutra. On both sides of the entrance (east wall) is a portrait of the Avalokitesvara (Goddess of Mercy) and the Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva.

Mogao Cave 45 caisson ceiling

The statues in the west wall niche are the cave’s focus. They are sculptural masterpieces from the Tang dynasty. There used to be nine bodies of statues, but the two warriors on the outside have been destroyed; therefore, leaving only seven statues preserved to date. The statues are arranged in a horizontal symmetry. Centered around the statue of the Buddha are his two disciples, a pair of Bodhisattvas and heavenly kings arranged according to their ranking. The expressions and temperament of the characters are different based on their identities, giving an atmosphere that is both static and dynamic. The individual expression complement with the characters and contents inside the cave, forming a coherent theme. The sculptures are immersed in the architectural space, but they can also be appreciated as an individual group. Meanwhile, in the background, there are eight more disciples, Bodhisattvas, eight classes of supernatural Dharma protectors and flying Apsaras painted on the walls and ceiling of the niche, completing the scene of Dharma preaching in the pure land despite the limit in space.

Mogao Cave 45 statue group inside west wall niche

The main statue of the Buddha in the center is preaching the Dharma with his right hand raised and his left resting on the knee. He wears a tall ushnisha crown on his head, and his face is full and peaceful, pair of ears large, eyebrows arching, eyes long and slim, nose as if breathing, lips full and delicate, lower jaw plump, and chest broad. His kind and delightful facial expression shows great kindness and mercy and his big and strong body shows dignified and generous bearing.

To the Buddha’s left is Kasyapa. The disciple wears a short brocade jacket inside and a kasya outside. His chest is half-exposed, and he stands upright with his head bowed. His face looks emaciated, his lips pinched, the corners of his mouth sinking inward. With thick eyebrows, he looks down to the floor with his half-lidded, bright eyes. His facial expression appears experienced and world-wise, calm and reserved. This statue features a rigorous and well-proportioned modeling and skillful techniques that exquisitely depicted the unity of form and spirit, creating an image of a senior, respectable monk of great virtue, profound thought and unwavering devotion to the study of Buddhist doctrine.

Another disciple, Ananda, stands to the right of the Buddha with the upper part of his body bent backward and his waist slightly upward. Both of his hands cross in front of his belly, and his head leans rightward and bows slightly. His bearing appears leisurely and unrestrained, and his facial features appear elegant and handsome, displaying a smart facial expression and a shy and respectful bearing. The statue give the appearance of a secular youngster full of real-world love and desire. The bright and gorgeous brocade dress and jacket and the warm purple kasaya he wears add grace to the young monk’s handsomeness.

The Bodhisattva statues on both sides are masterpieces of color-painted Bodhisattvas preserved from the Tang dynasty. They display graceful poses, full and well-built figures, fair and delicate skins, densely-embroidered brocaded skirts with round flowers and soft and sparse textures, resembling music melodies. Both Bodhisattvas have a full and round face, a tall cloud-like hair bun, long eyebrows overreaching into their temples, and eyes slightly opened. They seem to be smiling, appearing kind and peaceful. To add to the Bodhisattvas’ charms, the artists created a wavy form through a dynamic spatial twist of the head, chest and hips. The styles endowed them a delicately pretty and elegant bearing, creating ideal images of Bodhisattvas that show leniency and mercy to all living creatures.

The two statues of Heavenly Kings at the outermost appear big, tall and mighty. They wear high hair buns and armors, representing typical of warriors in the Tang dynasty. The heavenly kings glare ahead with a frown and stand with one hand on the hips and the other curled into a fist. With the center of gravity between their two feet, they have one foot on the God of the Earth in an agile stance reminiscent of an archer. Their downward-facing heads turn sideways, and their chests lean inward. Their fists are about to punch, showing a loose inside and tense outside force on the verge of eruption, thus creating a dynamic effect of unrestrained strength.

Mogao Cave 45 south wall Avalokitesvera Sutra illustration

The illustration of Avalokitesvara (Guanyin) Sutra on the south wall was inspired by the chapters on the Universal Gate of Avalokitesvara in the Lotus Sutra, which refers to the “gate” opened by the Goddess of Mercy to allow devout men and women to pursue the path of the Buddha. The painting is divided into three parts. The portrait of the Avalokitesvara is in the middle, looking dignified and kind with a full face, jade eyebrows and bright eyes, and dressed in a silk cape and jewelry with glittering precious stones, appearing gorgeous but not garish. The 33 manifestations of Avalokitesvara, which are the different incarnated characters of the Avalokitesvara preaching Buddhist doctrine to different believers, were painted on the upper part. At the lower part are various highly realistic scenes of acts taken by the Avalokitesvara to different requests from the common folks. Some famous scenes include the rescuing from the prison, ocean perils, beheading, praying for the birth of a boy or a girl, and merchants encountering bandits. The scenes are vivid and thrilling, all of which are reflections of social reality and vivid data for the study of social life during the Tang dynasty.

Mogao Cave 45 north wall Amitayurdhyana Sutra illustration.

On Cave 45’s north wall is an illustration of the Amitayurdhyana Sutra. The Western Pure Land depicted is consistent with that in the illustration of Amitabha Sutra, which tries to represent the prosperous scenes from the Western Paradise. In the painting, palaces and towers emerge from the Seven-treasure Lotus Pond, featuring curved columns and terraces that appear majestic and spectacular. The Buddha of Amitayurdhyana is sitting cross-legged on a lotus throne, while the Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva and the Mahasthamaprapta Bodhisattva are standing on his sides. They are surrounded by holy beings in an atmosphere of solemnity and reverence. On the terrace, the band of musicians is standing in rows, playing music; the dancers beat the drum and fly ribbons to a rousing rhythm. The Kalavinka also plays the lute, joining in the dancing performance. The audience of holy beings are immersed in the wonderful joy of Buddhism and heavenly music.

The story of Ajatashatru and Sixteen Contemplations were painted on the sides of the Pure Land scene. The story of Ajatashatru tells that story of King of Bimbasara’s son, Prince Ajatashatru, who kept his father Bimbasara as a prisoner in the palace without food or water. His queen mother, Vaidehi, covered herself with honey and flour to feed the king. Upon discovering that, the prince attempte to kill his mother, but was stopped by his ministers and instead kept his mother in prison. Lady Vaidehi devoted heself to the practice of Buddhism. The mural shows the plots of the story from bottom up. The scenes of the Sixteen Contemplations on the left are Lady Vaidehi’s sixteen kinds of contemplations in an attempt to be reborn in the Pure Land in the West.

Mogao Cave 45 west wall portrait of the Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva

As one of a typical cave dating from the High Tang dynasty in the Mogao Grottoes of Dunhuang, Cave 45 represents a unity of form and spirit. The lifelike sculptures and well-depicted characters in the murals are a direct reflection of the lives of the folks of different classes at the time.