The reshaped Buddhist cosmos: a study of the iconography of the main chamber of Cave 45, Mogao Grottoes, Dunhuang

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This study examines the iconographic characteristics and transformations of Buddhist art manifested in the main chamber of Cave 45, one of the adorned cave temples at the famed Buddhist site of Mogao, Dunhuang, China. Probably commissioned sometime between the late seventh and early eighth centuries, the original, Tang-period decorations of Cave 45 display an illusion of spectacular Buddhist paradises as conveyed in the Lotus Sutra;. Pictorial and structural evidence found in the main shrine during my field research of the grotto, however, indicates that the initial ornament of this cave temple might have been left unfinished. Approximately a half-century later, work at Cave 45 resumed, as the oasis town of Dunhuang was taken over by the Tibetans in 781. Icons of beloved bodhisattvas, Guanyin and Dizang, were introduced into the cave at the request of new donors. These late additions modified the overall visual plan of the main shrine, in terms of its color scheme and Buddhist symbolism. The pairing of Guanyin and Dizang, in particular, suggests the two bodhisattvas' increasingly popularity in the devotional life of post-Tang Dunhuang. The combined plan of the main shrine conveys a converted Buddhist worldview in which the heavenly Pure Lands coexist with the concerns of the earthly world and afterlife. As an art-historical investigation of the main chamber of Cave 45, this research presents an explicit chronology of its devotional works of art. The speculation of the cave's incomplete commission and renovations provides the reader with a glimpse of Buddhist art production and the devotional life in the context of a medieval oasis town along the overland travel roads.

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Art history