Kneeling Winged Monster, Xiangtangshan: Northern Group of Caves, North Cave, below perimeter wall niches, 550-559 ce. Limestone Relief, 34 x 27 x 10 in. (86.4 x 68.6 x 25.4 cm). The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust (35-276). Photo: Jamison Miller.
A groundbreaking exhibition that unites masterpieces of Chinese sculpture from the famed sixth‐century cave temples at Xiangtangshan with the first‐ever digitized reconstructions of their original setting opened on September 11, 2012, at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University (ISAW). Based on the most recent scholarship and utilizing advanced imaging technology, the installation provides new insights into the history and original appearance of one of Chinaʹs most remarkable Buddhist devotional sites.
The majestic temples at Xiangtangshan—carved into mountains in northern China and lavishly decorated with sculpted images of Buddha and other celestial beings—were damaged during the early twentieth century, when many of the carvings were removed. Echoes of the Past: The Buddhist Cave Temples of Xiangtangshan brings together twelve of the finest of these temple sculptures, on loan from American and British museums, and features a full‐scale, digital, 3‐D reconstruction of the interior of one of the siteʹs most impressive caves.
The exhibition is the result of a ten‐year research project on the Xiangtangshan temples and their carvings by an international team of scholars based at the University of Chicagoʹs Center for the Art of East Asia. Echoes of the Past remains on view through January 6, 2013.
ISAW Exhibitions Director and Chief Curator Jennifer Chi states: ʺWhile the sculptures from Xiangtangshan can—as indeed they have for many years—stand alone as powerfully impressive works of art, this exhibition is a rare and tremendously exciting opportunity to experience the carvings in their original context and to better understand the sacred meanings they were meant to convey. Echoes of the Past is a superb example of the enormous potential of digital technology in the public presentation of ancient sites and objects.ʺ
Carved into the limestone mountains of Hebei province in northern China, the Buddhist cave temples of Xiangtangshan (which translates as ʺMountain of Echoing Hallsʺ) were the crowning cultural achievement of the Northern Qi dynasty (550‐577 C.E.), whose rulers established Buddhism as the official religion of their realm. The interiors of these vast, multistoried structures, intended as replications of paradise itself, were lavishly decorated with hundreds of carved and painted images of Buddhist deities, disciples, and crouching monsters. Notwithstanding the enormous scale of the project, the carvings are among the most artistically refined surviving examples of Chinese medieval sculpture. Collectively, they are considered fundamental to our understanding of the history of Chinese Buddhist style and iconography. Unfortunately, during the early twentieth century, the outstanding quality and remote location of the temple carvings made them an attractive target for removal. Heads and hands of figures, as well as freestanding sculptures, were removed.
Echoes of the Past reunites twelve of the sculptures that are representative of the imagery, iconography, style, and scale of the sculptural program at Xiangtangshan. Of supreme importance were the images of Buddha, in his many and varied manifestations. A magnificent head of Buddha, measuring nearly three‐feet high, likely belonged to a colossal seated figure of Prabhūtaratna, Buddha of the Past, that is still in situ in the caves. Gently smiling, with downcast eyes, the head exudes an aura of serenity and calm. A smaller, exquisitely carved freestanding figure of a seated Buddha was apparently removed intact, and even retains its large and elaborately worked halo of floral and vegetal motifs. The exhibition also reunites the left and right hands of a colossal Maitreya, Buddha of the Future; although only fragments, the hands are highly expressive, with the creases in the flesh and such details as the fingernails all finely observed.
Also on view are several superb examples of the bodhisattvas and pratyekabuddhas (enlightened spiritual beings worshipped as deities) that abounded in the sculptural program of the caves. A life‐size head of the Bodhisattva Mahāsthāmaprāpta, with its symmetrical but sensitively carved features, exemplifies the wonderful balance of abstraction and naturalism that characterizes the finest Xiangtangshan sculptures. The figure of a standing pratyekabuddha, his mouth slightly open, as if reciting a prayer, has been hailed as one of the most majestic Chinese sculptures of any period. In contrast to the serenely elegant Buddhist deities are the grotesque and grimacing monsters found in the caves, probably representing evil spirits vanquished by Buddhist wisdom. The exhibitionʹs example is a fearsome creature, with a leonine head, curving horns, and wings rising from a corpulent humanoid body. The exhibition also includes rubbings of the sacred inscriptions that were a distinctive feature of the complex at Xiangtangshan.
In addition, visitors to the exhibition have the unprecedented opportunity to virtually ʺwalk throughʺ one of the caves, experiencing it as it might have appeared in the sixth century, thanks to an enveloping media installation that layers 3‐D laser scans of dispersed sculptures onto digitized scans of the existing temple walls and ceiling.
Standing Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara (Guanyin), Xiangtangshan: Southern Group of Caves, Attributed to Cave 2, 565-577 ce. Limestone freestanding sculpture with lacquerlike coating, 74 x 20 1/16 x 14 9/16 in. (188 x 51 x 37 cm). University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Purchased from C.T. Loo, 1916 (C113).