Prince Sattva Jataka Mural Painting 萨埵太子舍身饲虎本生故事图

This article is a direct translation of the Chinese text from the Dunhuang Academy website with permission from the Dunhuang Academy. To read the article in Chinese, please click here. Images Courtesy of Digital Dunhuang of the Dunhuang Academy. 此文章为敦煌研究院授权其网站原文翻译。阅读原文中文版请点击这里。图像均由敦煌研究院授权发表。

Along the thousand of miles on the Silk Road, there is a treasure trove of humanity – the Mogao Grottoes. The devoutly religious worship and the thousand-years of construction made it full of history and magnificence. Built in the middle of the Northern Wei dynasty, Mogao Cave 254 completely preserved its original design from a thousand and five hundred years ago. Although the people who built the cave were long gone, their product lasted through history and communicates with us deeply inside.

Prince Sattva Jataka, mural painting, Mogao Cave 254 south wall. Courtesy Digital Dunhuang of the Dunhuang Academy.

The Buddhist story “Sattva Sacrifice for the Tigress” was painted on the south wall inside the cave (Cave 254). The undeterred determination (of Sattva’s self-sacrifice) expressed through the delicate and unique composition of the picture attracted many artists. Let us walk into this painting and experience the wisdom and creativity of the unknown master(s) from a thousand and five hundred years ago.

In ancient India, three kind princes were hunting in the woods. The youngest brother was called Prince Sattva. There was a tigress who after giving birth to seven cubs became too weak to look for food. The kind princes wanted to help, but tigers eat fresh flesh only. Witnessing the dying of the tigress, the kind Prince Sattva decided to save her and her cubs. He excused himself from the elder brothers and laid in front of the tigress, but the tigress was too weak to eat him. Prince Sattva then climbed up the cliff, poked his throat, and jumped off the cliff again. The tigers started to drink his blood. After regaining some energy, they divided up his flesh and fully recuperated from hunger. Heaven and earth were moved by Prince Sattva’s compassion. Prince Sattva’s brothers returned and found only his bones left on the ground. The king and queen also came after hearing the news. When the queen held Prince Sattva, his earthly body got repaired to its original form as if the prince was merely sleeping. People built a white pagoda, put his remains inside, and paid tribute to commemorate his kind deeds. The Prince Sattva in this story is a previous life of Sakyamuni, the Buddha. The sacrifice he made was one pillar stone for his eventual enlightenment. This story contains the core teaching of Buddhism, which is compassion and sacrifice, therefore, it was widely told.

The artist painted the story with delicate details. Within the less than 2m2 mural surface, it was painted with 20 persons, 8 tigers, 5 goats, 2 deers, 1 monkey, layers of mountains and a stately pagoda. There are a lot of details in the painting, but they are not disorderly. Anyone who knows the story would be able to follow the development in the painting and appreciate the picture composition.

First, the artist divided the complex story into five scenes. The starting point was on the three standing princes. In the middle stood Prince Sattva wearing a long robe, raising his right hand taking a vow. The flow of the long robe naturally directs to the cubs laying underneath, giving the sense of Prince Sattva not only saving multiple lives, but also giving a mother hope.

The artist grouped several scenes in one framing: Prince Sattva laying next to the tigress, the tigress being too weak to eat him, Sattva climbing back up the cliff, Sattva poking through his throat, and Sattva jumping off the cliff. The throat-poking Sattva and the jumping Sattva were arranged in parallel as if looking at and inquiring each other. The artist used several triangles to compose this scene, making the moment of sacrifice peaceful and determined.

In the lower right corner, the hungry tigress and cubs surrounded Sattva and were drinking his blood. The fresh blood is clearly seen, but his hands were seen holding the tigress’ feet. The treatment of this life and death scene is very moving. The details represented Prince Sattva’s willingness to self-sacrifice was from deep inside. The straight lines used to delineate his body represented a sense of internal determination and calmness.

Prince Sattva Jataka, mural painting section, Mogao Cave 254 south wall. Courtesy Digital Dunhuang of the Dunhuang academy.

The sacrifice of Sattva brought endless grief to his beloved ones. Someone brought water and sprinkled it on him. Sprinkling water has the meaning of awakening in Buddhism. The cold water woke the grieving princes from their losses and started to understand Sattva’s merits. These major movements direct the picture to its edge, and Prince Sattva’s protruding body leads the viewers upward. The unique composition design took viewers to the end and then back to the story.

Prince Sattva, in his mother’s arms, was as if asleep. The bones had been covered by a complete fleshy body. The artist used this scene to express a sense of warmth and wisdom. Like it says in the Buddhist sutras, Sattva gave up his earthly body but regained a complete Buddhist body. His real life did not really end there. In contrast to the grieving mother, Sattva’s father was already worshipping the pagoda, taking viewers with him to the white pagoda.

White pagoda represents the compassion and merits of Sattva, and is also the center of the spirit of this story. However, the artist used an unusual method to treat (this architecture). The pagoda eaves were downward looking, but the base of the pagoda is leveled. Why would the artist draw it that way? Sattva’s vow was not to go to the other side, but to sacrifice for many lives and return to the end life. Therefore, the artist presented two contradictory viewpoints, which on one hand kept the image stable, and the other, emphasized Prince Sattva’s vow to save sentient beings for many lives.

Prince Sattva Jatak, mural painting section, Mogao Cave 254 south wall. Courtesy Digital Dunhuang of the Dunhuang Academy.

Through the five selected scenes, the artist used forms and colors of different people to create direction of the story in the image, forming a sense of flow, leading viewer’s viewings and feelings toward a deeper understanding of this famous Buddhist story.

Getting out the sectional analysis, when looking at the big picture, some viewers might have noticed that the artist had created two hidden base lines in the image. Vertically, the robe of the vowing Prince Sattva directed down toward the feeding cubs. Their heads and chests raising represented the happiness of regaining lives. Next to the cubs was the sacrificed Sattva. Horizontally, the throat-poking Sattva on the right and the white pagoda on the left form a straight line, connecting the sacrificing Sattva and the future enlightened Buddha. The two baselines, one vertical the other horizontal, connecting sacrifice and newborn, devoting the body and reaching enlightenment, formed the karma in Buddhist theories and established the structure of the picture. The procession of direction and detailing of the scenes under that framework is very orderly and meaningful.

Although we would never know the complete thinking behind this artist from a thousand and five hundred years ago, nor the shock this story brought, the belief and feelings were well expressed and condensed onto this old stone wall. It went through thousands of years to the later generations. This is the endless charm of an excellent artistic remain.