A 15th century Persian ambassador to China remarked that the Buddhist paintings at Dunhuang were of such a character that "all the painters of the world would be struck with awe." (Whitfield, CTMG 6)
|The names of most Dunhuang artists and craftsmen are lost. Some were monks like Le Zun and Fa Liang who worked out of devotion. Others were professional craftsmen and artists hired by donors to excavate a new cave or expand or repair an existing cave. All of the artists faced the same geographic constraints.
The cliff into which the Dunhuang caves were dug was made of compacted sand or sandstone. As a result, the rock of the caves is quite brittle. Excavation of a cave was easy but keeping it from crumbling was more complicated. The rock required Dunhuang builders to dig short, narrow corridors into the cliff face. Once inside the cliff, the chambers expanded in size, some large enough to hold 100 worshippers who would walk around the chambers' central supporting pillar in a clockwise direction, observing the paintings and sculptures on all sides.
"One can easily imagine the impact on the believer who stepped across the threshold from searing desert into a brilliantly painted vision of paradise within." (Whitfield, CTMG 5) Step into a 3-dimensional cave to see for yourself.
Caves were plastered with mud made from the crumbled sandstone and water from the small stream that ran in front of the cliff. The plastered walls were painted with pigments acquried locally at first. Later, as the scale of the caves grew, pigments were an important trade item that reached Dunhuang from either end of the Silk Road. Therefore, the unique colors of Dunhuang cave paintings are themselves a reflection of both Dunhuang's harsh desert geography as well as its heritage as a key center of international trade.
The local folk story from Dunhuang,"The Five Color Well", gives a good impression of the way in which artists created the caves.
Sculpture: forgotten, lost, destroyed
Paintings at Dunhuang have survived better than the sculptures that also decorated the caves. This is again due to the brittle stone of the area. Unlike other cave temple complexes in China, Dunhuang's sculptures could not be carved out of the stone. Instead, they were built from clay laid over a wooden, scarecrow-like frame. The finished scuplture was plastered and painted in the same brilliant colors as the walls. Sometimes gold leaf and precious metals were used to decorate the sculptures. In some places, small clay sculptures of the Buddha were attached to the walls like three-dimensional thousand Buddha wallpaper.
Dunhuang possesses two of the world's largest Buddha statues. The larger of the two stands over 100 feet tall. It was built in 695 CE under the reign of the only Chinese empress, Wu Zetian. The builders made this statue of the Maitreya Buddha with distinctly feminine features that many believe resemble the empress herself. Originally the Buddha figure was enclosed in a four storey structure that left the head of the Buddha exposed to the sun. Later a six story pagoda was constructed that entirely enclosed the figure.
The second giant Buddha statue is nearly 80 feet high. It was built over 29 years between 721-750 CE. This, like the taller figure, was made of clay and straw over a stone core. Both figures have special Buddha-features such as fingers with 4 joints, elongated earlobes and a third eye, all of which indicate the Buddha's all-seeing, all-knowing presence.
Many of the smaller sculptures have detoriated with time. The wood frames rot and the clay dries and crumbles. Some sculptures were destroyed by vandals who scrapped the gold from the figures. When Muslim raiders plundered the region they defaced many of the sculptures and paintings, gouging out the eyes of painted Buddhas or destroying the heads of sculpted bodhisattvas.
In the early parts of this century, Russian soldiers and refugees who crossed the border to escape war in their homeland camped in the caves. They broke many statues apart in order to get wood they needed for their fires. The smoke from the fires also damaged many of the paintings.
European and American explorers and archeaologists also did great damage to the caves. They cut many paintings and sculptures from the walls of the caves and shipped them back to museums in their home countries. As result many of the most important pieces of Dunhuang art are to be found in London, Paris and Boston, while visitors see only empty walls in the caves themselves.