Cave Paintings of Dunhuang

Introductory Sites

Online Book

General Dunhuang Art Sources

The first cave carved out of the sandstone cliff at Dunhuang by Le Zun in 366 CE was a small cave where the monk intended to meditate upon his vision of a thousand Buddhas radiant in the sky. He sculpted an image of the Buddha around a wooden frame, then painted the walls of the cave with the images he had seen in his vision. A second monk added a niche to Le Zun's cave, again as a place of worship. He too adorned his meditation space with Buddhist images to focus his worship.

These two monks established the pattern of the Dunhuang caves; a combination of architecture, sculpture and painting designed to focus a worshipper's mind on the teachings of the Buddha and the rewards of devotion.

As the caves expanded into an elaborate complex of Buddhist art and worship, they also evolved to serve all the necessary functions of a major religious center. In addition to living quarters for the monks, there were meditation spaces, lecture halls amd large devotional halls where groups as large as 100 could worship at key Buddha images.

asparas, the angels of DunhuangThe basic design of many of the devotional caves consisted of a narrow entrance passage which opened into a bigger rectangular chamber with a large square central pillar. This central pillar was often tens of feet wide with groups of Buddhist sculptures in each of its faces. Usually these groups consisted of the Buddha surrounded by his closest followers.

The walls of the caves were painted with stenciled and subtly varying patterns of the Thousand Buddhas, flying spirits called apsaras, scenes from the life of the historical Buddha, Jataka stories depicting the Buddhas previous lives, Buddhist scriptures and portraits of donors.

The whole effect was intended to immerse the viewer in an overwhelming visual experience of imagery that expressed the rewards of devotion, educated about the ethics of Buddhist teachings and radiated with beauty even in the candle-lit dimness of a cave carved from desert rock.

The Buddhist caves at Dunhuang form one of the world's largest repositories of Buddhist art with 45,000 square meters of paintings preserved in the 492 remaining caves. The caves are remarkable for the beauty and for their testament to Buddhist practice in central Asia. They are also remarkable for their record of the cultural vitality of the Silk Road. Jataka Stories, ethics and artThe rise and fall of dynasties, of nomadic empires and of Buddhism itself can be traced in the changing styles and influences that literally change the colors and forms of the caves built into the sandstone beside a silent stream in the heart of the desert.

To learn more about the Methods of Cave building click here.

SandStone to Sacred Space, the cave paintings of Dunhuang