Chinese Buddhist Art: The Yungang Caves

Chinese Buddhist Art: The Yungang Caves

Introduction Visual Properties of the Artwork

Groups of beautiful Chinese Buddhist cave temples were created in the fifth century when there was Six Dynasties period. They are placed near Dagaton City, not far from The Great Wall of China. This masterpiece was nominated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2001. The Yungang Grottes were first carved grottoes in China. They extend for about one kilometer and include west, east and middle grottoes. First sculptures were engraved on the sandstone rocks.

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The whole complex includes five thousand carved sculptures. In the center of every cave there is the main three-dimensional Buddhist statue, while the walls are carved out with tangled sculptures. There are colossal standing and sitting sculptures of Buddha. Some of those are inside the caves, the other are outside. Sculptures of Buddha are pale sandy fawn in color, made of stone. The caves differ in size, some of them are 70 feet, and others are only a few feet. Surfaces of all caves are painted and largely carved. There are a great variety of tangled bas-reliefs, fascinating monuments of stone. Wall carvings are multi-colored: amber, brown, yellow-stone warm colors. There are niches on the walls.

Caves differ depending on their position. In the East they incorporate pagodas – sacred building, typically a many-tiered tower in Buddhist temples. In the middle part, they consist of the main Buddhist statue. In the central part, they have posterior and anterior rooms. All walls and ceilings are decorated with colorful sculptures. West caves are medium sized with carved out niches.

Cave number five and number six are the most beautiful. In the fifth cave there is a seventeen-meter Buddha statue. This statue is the biggest one of Yungang Grottoes. In the sixth grotto, there are vivid, multi-colored caves with outstanding workmanship, telling the story of Sakyamuni. Grotto number twenty is famous not only for its size, but also for the face of the sculpture. It has soft lines, eyes, beaming with grace. All those sculptures are figurative, becuse they have small figures on it: ornaments, mythological elements. Buddhist sculptures are idealized, extended figures, with elongated faces and mystical grins, sitting cross-legged, wearing long gowns, the impressive image of mysterious beatitude. The posture, gestures and symbols remind Indian art. These sculptures are Buddhist solutions to the problems of civilization; they represent hope of Nirvana. The Yungang Grottoes are a cradle of world art.

Location in Context

First grottoes were made on the south Wuzhou rock, in the fifth century. Tan Yao was the chief of building. Grottos were built under the imperial patronage. The very early caves show ascetic monumentality. Later grottoes found favor with court authority and other social classes. The caves become a very important worship place.

The style of sculptures and pillars of the facades of grottoes resemble Indian chaityas – Buddhist prayer hall. Some of the enormous sculptures of Buddha are similar to the North-West Indian style. Chinese cave-temples came from India, that is why they differ from Indian Buddhist temples in both form and function. In the Indian temples, there was one special type of grotto, where Buddhist monks lived. In the middle of that grotto, there was a special stand for Buddhist homilists. They gave lectures on Buddhism and its doctrine. Such cave temples, very popular in India, were discovered in very few places in The Celestial Empire. The Dunhuang Grottoes is the only place where remains of similar construction can be found today.

Some colossal statues that are located in caves number five and six are seemed to have been influenced by Bamiyan statues, that were found in Afghanistan. Grottoes remind sculpture found in Central Asian oases Turfan and Kucha. It is possible to notice Iranian and Byzantine and other styles, represented in caves. Greco-Roman style is also presented in images of dragons, little figures. The original Chinese style is presented in images of dragons, phoenixes, Chinese-style roofs.Works of art with vigorous appearance and small clothing came from India, while sculptures that represent thin bodies with heavy clothing represent Chinese style. The main sculpture style of Yungang caves is a synthesis of different art styles, namely Persian, Byzantine, and Greek. The main influence is from India. Later, when the work was in full swing, a new Chinese style arose, based on native-born, original Chinese style.

Subject Matter of the Artwork and its Provenance

The five main figures were constructed in honor of first five emperors in Buddha form. Due to imperial support, the project extended in scope. It took thirty years to build grottoes. The Yungang grottoes art shows the effective fusion of Buddhist religious art from south and central Asia with Chinese traditions and customs. Buddhism saw the natural landscape as a holy and favorable place. That is why they built their temples in the plain nature. People believed that sacred rocks are full of extraterrestrial energy and act as axes binding heaven and earth. Many people made pilgrimages to these places, they meditated, prayed there.

Buddhist grottoes had religious functions. They were designed to represent five elements: fire, air, water, earth, wisdom, symbolized the apex at the top. The main function of grottoes was explained in Buddhist literature, which says that grottoes were built to preserve the remains. There were two kinds of grottoes: some of them were used as tombs – stupas, others were used as temples, there were sacred monuments and shrines. According to the Buddhists literature, when Sakyamuni died, his body was cremated and crystallized. Monks wanted to preserve remains and built grottoes. Buddhism became very popular in China not only because of its principles but also because of visual objects, such as the religious monuments, that were located in grottoes.

Chinese cave-temples came from India, that is why they differ from Indian Buddhist temples in both form and function. In the Indian temples, there was one special type of grotto, where Buddhist monks lived. In the middle of that grotto there was a special stand for Buddhist homilists.

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