Cave 158, Middle Tang (781-847)

Mourning Potentate, north wall (detail from pl. 128)

Cave 158 is one of the most memorable of all the Dunhuang caves. Its size alone sets it apart: at 17.2 metres across and 7.28 metres deep, its greatest dimension, unlike all the rest, is from north to south. This orientation is dictated by the gigantic reclining figure of the Buddha in nirvana that almost totally obscures the whole length of the west wall (pl. 126). Unlike other nirvana scenes, such as those painted in the Northern Zhou dynasty on the west wall of cave 428, the Buddha is fully modelled in relief, his head cushioned by his right hand. On the walls behind him, and at his head and feet, mourners of all classes are gathered (see detail from pl. 128 above). In this cave, the artists, faced with a monumental challenge, have revived to great effect the earlier combination of stucco figures complemented by painted ones on the walls behind, and given it new immediacy by the contrasts, rather than the harmony, seen between them.

The enormous figure of Buddha, 15.6 metres in length, is calm and peaceful... Gathered around the Buddha are his disciples, numerous Bodhisattvas, and lay figures. The nineteen Bodhisattvas form a single rank along the top of the southern and western walls; near the lower part of his robe, they give way to fourteen figures of divine beings of the Eight Classes and Protectors of the Law. Because the Bodhisattvas are enlightened beings, their features are composed and they show no sign of grief. Among the seventeen figures of the Buddha's disciples, however, one is so distraught as to have to be physically restrained by his companions from throwing himself on the bier (pl. 127). The means by which this grief is expressed are similar to those used to portray the great strength and rage of the guardians, as we have seen in the stucco figures of cave 194 (pl. 117): strained tendons and muscles, the latter rendered by a network of colour shading and highlighting in grotesque exaggeration. Their eyes are tightly shut, teeth bared as they cry out in agony: only one, seated close to the Buddha's head, looks upward and cups his hand to his ear, as if still trying to catch his teacher's words amid the din around him.

The scene on the north wall is if anything even more violent (pl. 128 - detail above). Here the mourners are the rulers of many countries. Chief among them, in the upper left corner, though now sadly missing due to degradation of the wall surface, but still identified in a cartouche, is the Emperor of Tibet... Dignified and restrained in his grief, the Emperor stands with bowed head, wearing a robe with a wide collar and a design of large medallions, and attended by a figure wearing a turban closely similar to those worn by the attendants of the Tibetan ruler in cave 159 (pl. 257). A little lower and further to the right is the Chinese Emperor, his arms supported by two attendants. The varied crowns and headdresses of the remaining figures surely signify the regions from which they come, but are not easy to identify with certainty, and none of the small cartouches next to each of them appears to have been inscribed (pls 250­256). It is likely that the different forms of self-mutilation observed in their exaggerated grieving, as well as their dress, would have identified them in the Chinese mind with different regions. Several of them have already been seen among the foreign rulers attendant on the Tibetan Emperor in cave 159 (pls 257, 258), and will be seen again in cave 61 of the Five Dynasties (pl. 262).

Some features of the dais on which the Buddha lies should also be mentioned here, as they are essential to an understanding of the scene. In the centre, there is a small recess which takes the place of the west wall niche in other caves, for which there is no space here. It does not contain stucco figures, but is painted with a Paradise scene. Other figures appear on the sides of the niche; outside it, on the front of the dais, the mural on the south side represents the immolation of Sariputra in the funeral pyre, and that on the north side, the dancing of heretics as they rejoice in the apparent death of the Buddha. Such abandoned joy is an essential complement to the violent (and equally uninformed) grief of the disciples. With this in mind, it is easy to recognize the dancing heretic in the Sui dynasty ceiling painting of the same subject in cave 420 (pl. 71). Mahayana doctrine teaches, however, that the nirvana of the Buddha is simply an expedient device to instruct those who are not ready to accept the higher meaning of the Buddha's extinction. Past, present and future are all subsumed in a single moment, and the ceiling of the cave shows the ten Pure Lands in which he will continue to exist after nirvana, in alternation with serried ranks of seated Bodhisattvas. The carefree beauty of these worlds is also conveyed by the imagery of precious canopies, flute-playing heavenly beings and a flying phoenix and other birds, seen along the top of the west wall, above the heads of the Bodhisattvas gathered at the Buddha's side (pls 220, 387, 388). Among all this imagery of Paradise, there is just one scene as a reminder of the Hinayana path: high above the grieving disciples on the south wall, this vignette unmistakably shows Kasyapa, who was not present at the death, as a wandering ascetic, wearing sandals and carrying a staff, in a somewhat forbidding landscape of sharp peaks and threatening sky (pl. 316)...

...Among the distinctive characteristics of the caves of the Tibetan or Middle Tang period, two had a lasting effect: the arrangement of sutra illustrations in framed panels, dividing the wall surfaces and allowing for the depiction of a greater number of texts; and the prominence given to the representation of donors, particularly the Tibetan Emperor and his entourage. In the periods that followed the nominal restoration of Chinese rule, the Late Tang and Five Dynasties, donors are represented even more prominently, with cartouches detailing their official titles, as if to assert their social position and its recognition by the Chinese state. In this way the character of the decoration of the Dunhuang caves was to change yet again, preserving the momentum behind their creation.

All text and illustrations © Textile & Art Publications 1996:
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