Cave 427, Sui dynasty (581-618)

Buddha Triad, north wall (detail from pl. 64)

...The interior of [cave 427] is stunning in its orderly conception and the dramatic majesty of its stucco figures. Viewed through the entrance corridor (pl. 62), it presents a new variation on the plan of caves with a central square pillar... The pillar has large niches and a projecting altar shelf on the rear and sides, but the front is flat, serving as a backdrop for a large triad of the Buddha and two Bodhisattvas. The central Buddha...is 5 metres tall, and the accompanying Bodhisattvas 4.5 metres. An important detail in this cave is that the north and south walls each have a single panel of a preaching scene opposite the central pillar. We shall see presently how such preaching scenes were to assume greater importance in the Early Tang period, until they grew to fill the whole of the side walls. Here the panels are small, especially in comparison with the sculptural groups. The Thousand-Buddha motif is painted on all the remaining wall and ceiling surfaces, except for a band of flying apsarasas along the top of the walls, and a broad band of magnificently scrolling foliage and lotus blossoms in white and red on a green ground, enclosing musicians, along the top of the gable ceiling. The Thousand Buddhas are considerably smaller than those of the Northern Zhou, and are depicted in a limited palette of colours, contrasting in both size and colour with the main images.

The splendid appearance of the main images is almost certainly the result of imperial patronage of Buddhism in the Sui period, and of the ever-growing influence of Mahayana Buddhism. The combination of the Buddha accompanied by two disciples, usually Kasyapa and Ananda, and by two Bodhisattvas, had already appeared in the Northern Zhou, as in cave 428 nearby (pl. 49). Such groups symbolize the comprehensive nature of Mahayana belief, and especially that taught in the Lotus Sutra, embracing the Hinayana tradition of personal discipline in addition to the idea of salvation through Bodhisattvas, enlightened beings who have vowed to become Buddhas, but who have postponed this event until all other sentient creatures shall have been saved. The Sui grouping, however, is much more compact than that seen in the Northern Zhou example, omitting the disciples and placing the Bodhisattvas close to the Buddha and only a head shorter. The three groups in this cave (pls 63, 64 - see above) are all of the same size and quite similar. They can in each case be identified as Three Honoured Ones images, in which the flanking Bodhisattvas, Avalokitesvara and Mahasthamaprapta, are associated with the central figure of Amitabha. Although the Bodhisattvas turn their heads very slightly towards the central Buddha, and raise their inner hands to chest level, all three figures in each group are represented frontally, so that the Bodhisattvas become associated with the worship offered to the Buddha, and in the context of later popular belief, all three can in fact be called Buddhas. This is very different from the worshipping role of the Bodhisattvas in the preaching scenes in cave 428, where a number of Bodhisattvas on each side incline their heads and bodies towards Sakyamuni in the centre. In cave 427, there are still six adoring Bodhisattvas accompanying each group, but they are very much reduced in size, as they are painted on the wall in the narrow space between the Buddha and the two main Bodhisattvas (pl. 64).

In sculptural form, too, the main figures display a new style, emanating from metropolitan China, and evident from their elegant and beautiful appearance. Each of them stands on a lotus pedestal with a double row of inverted and closely-overlapping petals (pl. 62). Although they remain largely attached to the pillar behind them, their torsos and limbs are well rounded and their heads are completely detached from the wall... Size and mass in these figures is combined with the sculptor's ability to carve or model the image almost in the round, which ensures that they remain gracefully balanced and proportioned. Only in the triad on the north wall (pl. 64 - see above) are two of the haloes preserved: these too are detached from the wall, in a way that has not been seen earlier. Unpainted blocks among the Thousand Buddhas just behind the heads of the other triads show that these too originally had haloes of the same kind.

Particular care has been lavished on the Bodhisattvas, whose flesh tints and facial colour have in each group been contrasted with those of the Buddha. In the central group (pl. 62), the Buddha's face and hands are a warm orange, and those of the Bodhisattvas white; in the north and south groups, this pattern is reversed. Nor would it seem that there has been, as in many other instances, later repainting. The most sumptuous effects of all, though, and those which best reveal the mastery of the artists who executed this cave, lie in the portrayal of fabrics in the dress and adornments of the Bodhisattvas. Each of them wears a shallow diadem with palmette and half-floret motifs, designed to enhance the squarish proportions of the face, and a pectoral ornament with either one or three pendants (pl. 64). Other ornaments include wrist bangles, a circlet on the upper arm, and a rectangular jewel suspended from the waist (pl. 366).

The six Bodhisattvas are all dressed in similar fashion: an inner garment running diagonally across the chest, leaving the right shoulder exposed, a dhoti or skirt fastened at the waist, and scarves draped from the shoulders. The designs painted on their clothing reflect those of contemporary silk textiles. The inner garment of the right attendant Bodhisattva on the south wall, for instance (pl. 366), has white pearl medallions and blue foliate patterns within lozenges, most probably representing a woven brocade, while the blue and green scarves draped from the shoulders display free-flowing floral designs in white, which more likely represent embroidery. Beneath the waist, where a plain brown sash is tied in a loop to fasten the dhoti, two more fabrics are revealed, one woven in diamond checks with white dotted borders, the other a twill pattern on a green ground. The left Bodhisattva in the same group wears a similar combination of fabrics (pl. 367), but the motif in the lozenges on the inner garment is of confronting birds, a design commonly found, often in combination with pearled medallions, on textiles inspired by Sasanian motifs. Different combinations of the same ideas can be seen in the left Bodhisattva on the north wall (pl. 368); the painter's delight in shape and texture, as well as pattern, can be inferred from the twist he has put in the falling sash, and from its dark brown folds. There is also, perhaps for the first time at Dunhuang, an extensive use of gilded details. Exceptionally, even the seated Buddhas in the niches in the rear and sides of the central pillar wear elaborate fabrics and show gilding on the edges of the robes.

All text and illustrations © Textile & Art Publications 1996:
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