Sacred Caves of the Silk Road

Located at the eastern terminus of the Silk Road, along a cliff face on the outskirts of the city of Dunhuang in China’s far western Gansu Province, the sacred caves of Dunhuang present a vivid picture of the convergence of the religious traditions of Central Asia and China. The caves were built over a thousand-year period primarily for Buddhist worship. From the fourth to the fourteenth centuries, artisans produced brilliantly colored wall and ceiling paintings along with finely carved statues for the devotional communities served by the Dunhuang caves.

Chinese, Tang Dynasty, 618–907, Portrait of a Monk, late 9th–early 10th century, recovered from the Library Cave (Cave 17) at Dunhuang. Ink on paper, 46 x 30 cm. Collection of the British Museum. © The Trustees of the British MuseumThis exhibition brings together original and twentieth-century materials in an effort to illuminate not only the visual splendors of Dunhuang but also the rich cultural and religious traditions of the region. Original materials on display from the cave site—many dating from the Tang dynasty (618–907)—include Buddhist sutras and Daoist texts, as well as paintings and sculptures. An additional group of painted and text fragments, some written in languages other than Chinese, found in the Dunhuang region attest to the varied ethnicities that intermingled during the height of Silk Road trade. Examples from the Lo Archive—an important archive of photographs taken at Dunhuang in the early 1940s—together with painted copies of cave paintings from the 1950s provide further insight into the architecture and art of the caves.

Chinese, Tang Dynasty, 618–907, Detail showing Venus and Mars in Tejaprabha Buddha and the Five Planets, 897, recovered from the Library Cave (cave 17) at Dunhuang. Ink and color on silk. Collection of the British Museum. © The Trustees of the British Museum In addition to the wide array of material from Princeton University’s Dunhuang collections, two paintings from the British Museum further enhance the exhibition’s narrative. Tejaprabha Buddha and the Five Planets, one of the loan paintings, dates from 897. Now mounted on a board, it was originally a hanging scroll and may have been carried like a banner in religious processions. The second loan painting, Portrait of a Monk, dates from the late ninth to the early tenth century. Both were discovered in the early twentieth century among a trove of paintings and manuscripts found inside one of the Dunhuang caves. Portrait’s delicate ink lines present an image of a monk seated on a prayer mat with his hands in the gesture of meditation. His shoes are neatly arranged in front of his mat, and his rosary and bag are suspended from a tree. A thin-necked vessel used in Buddhist ceremonies to sprinkle water for purification lies behind him. Throughout their history, the caves were supported and maintained by monastic communities that fluctuated in size and intensity. This now anonymous monk, as well the many representations of monks found in sculpture and wall paintings, is a keen reminder of the monastic activity that was the foundation of Dunhuang’s religious life.


Zoe S. Kwok

Assistant Curator of Asian Art