Cave 272, Northern Liang dynasty (c. 421-439)

Divine Being, south side of west wall (detail of pl. 7)

Cave 272 is square in plan and quite small, but an impression of height is gained from the fact that the decoration on the north and south walls is carried up without a break by a curved coving into the ceiling area. Alexander Soper has noted the "truly remarkable form" of this feature, unique at Dunhuang. In itself this suggests an early date, recalling the barrel-vaulted caves at Kizil, near Kucha on the northern Silk Road. Both cave 272 and cave 275 are thought to date from the period of the Northern Liang dynasty, before Dunhuang was conquered by the Northern Wei in 439. There is evidence, however, that cave 272 remained in use over many centuries. The walls of the entrance corridor were repainted in the Song dynasty, with Bodhisattvas and a border of alternating half florets, but the interior of the cave is largely untouched, except for an opening in the northern wall. This opening gave access to the other adjacent cave, 275, breaking through into a niche in its southern wall, and destroying part of the decoration in both caves...

...Several features suggest that the image in the main niche on the west wall represents Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future, seated with legs pendent, a characteristic pose. According to the Sutra of Meditation on Maitreya Bodhisattva's Rebirth on High in the Tusita Heaven, numberless Buddha transformations and Bodhisattvas will appear within his aura. Both the nimbus and the large mandorla that frames the whole image retain their original decoration and colour, with Buddhas seated in the meditation posture representing the Buddha transformations mentioned in the sutra.

Maitreya's head is a later replacement, and comparison with the main image in cave 275 nearby (pl. 9), as well as with the size of the painted nimbus on the wall behind, suggests that the original head would have been considerably larger, possibly extending as far as the inner edges of the plain green band of the nimbus. In his notes made at the site in 1909, Paul Pelliot believed that repairs had been made to the body as well, but several features suggest that this still retains much of the basic character of the original. It is modelled in clay stucco over a wooden armature (partly exposed where the hands are broken off at the wrist), and polychromed. The legs are clearly depicted beneath the folds of the robe, which are shown as low string ridges arranged concentrically. The robe is worn in the open mode, with the right shoulder exposed; the underrobe, with painted decoration of large florets, is visible on the lower part of the torso, and again as a narrow hem just below the outer robe above the ankles. Such features suggest a model in the Gupta style, and may be compared with the fine standing Buddhas, also of early fifth century date, in cave 169 at Binglingsi, near Lanzhou in Gansu province; there, the concentric folds are shallowly incised, but the edges of the monastic robe falling from the wrists, with wave-like folds closely mirroring each other, strongly recall those seen here.

The decoration of cave 272 provides us with the first instance at Dunhuang of an image modelled in the round in clay stucco with painted decoration on the adjacent walls, a harmonious combination that is to be seen in every subsequent period. While the niche is shallow at its base, it cuts deeply into the ceiling slope at the top of the west wall, so that there is room for the depiction of a circular canopy with star-shaped decoration at the top, creating, as Pelliot noted, the effect of a cupola above the main image (pl. 5). This cupola motif probably represents a lotus, and smaller lotus flowers and buds can be seen drifting down all around: according to the sutra quoted above, golden lotus flowers will rain from the sky when Maitreya preaches (pl. 346).

The side walls of the niche curve round to join its rear wall, giving it a plan similar to that of the huge caves 16­20 at Yungang, near Datong in northern Shanxi province, dating from the second half of the fifth century, and affording generous space for paintings of a single large Bodhisattva on either side, with smaller Bodhisattvas kneeling in worship above (pl. 6)... On the west wall, two groups each of twenty devas, or divine beings, flank the central image (three are missing on the northern side, damaged by the doorway to the adjacent cave 275, which has now been resealed). The five devas in the lowest row on each side are seated on lotuses whose stems emerge from a rectangular panel of blue that represents a pool. Although seated, their postures are highly varied and their gestures energetic, as if they were dancing from a seated position (pls 4, 7 - see detail above)...

...The whole cave is remarkable for the lively and altogether coherent nature of its assembly of heavenly musicians, dancers and adoring worshippers. ...Though small in size, [it] is very regularly composed: square in plan, its main panels, such as the preaching scene just described, and the adoring figures and musicians to either side of the main Buddha, are also square. The majority of the caves that follow, datable to the Northern Wei period, are rectangular in plan, principally on account of the square central pillar that is so conspicuous a feature. One is left to wonder whether cave 275, so closely tucked in behind cave 272 that a niche in its south wall either broke through accidentally or was purposely deepened to form a passage between them, may have been the later of the two.

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