Cave Temples of Dunhuang

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In 1989, the Getty Conservation Institute made a commitment to help with the preservation of the hundreds of Buddhist temples built into cliff-side caves between the 4th and 14th centuries near Dunhuang, China.

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Interior of Mogao cave replica at Getty Center
Photo: Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging

For over a thousand years, monks and devotees had painted and re-painted elaborate murals on the walls of these caves often adding carved stone sculptures depicting Buddha, the story of his life and teachings. Though listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the survival of these ancient caves was threatened by floods, sandstorms and, more recently, busloads of tourists. Almost two decades later, Getty Conservation Institute reports that the situation is greatly improved with ongoing conservation programs. Visits to the site are curtailed as a result but don't despair. You can have a similar experience in the current exhibition, Cave Temples of Dunhuang: Buddhist Art on China's Silk Road, on view through September 4.

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Cave 275
View of the interior and sculpture of a bodhisattva, Northern Liang dynasty (420–429 CE)
Mogao caves, Dunhuang, China

To give us a better understanding of the caves and their importance, the Getty has erected exact replicas of three of the Mogao Grottoes, as they are known, on its plaza. The paintings, which are rarely attributed to any single artist, have been repainted repeatedly over time so the notion of presenting replicas of the originals is not so odd as it might seem in contemporary Western context. It is an impressive experience. For instance, Cave 275, from the mid-5th century Northern Liang dynasty, houses a larger than human scale sculpture of a seated boddhisatva, Maitreya, the future Buddha. One hand is held out while the other is missing, just as it is the the actual sculpture. These replicas document the wear and tear of time and the elements. There was no attempt to restore them to an imagined original condition. Niches carved into the walls contain smaller figurative sculptures while the walls and ceiling are covered in complicated colored paintings.

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Cave 285, view of the interior, Western Wei dynasty (535–556 CE)
Mogao caves, Dunhuang, China
Photo: Wu Jian. © Dunhuang Academy

Cave 285, from the 6th century Western Wei dynasty, is notable for its raised ceiling painted with a pattern of peonies. The Getty team went to great lengths to replicate the exact colors of existing paint and even brought mud from that region of China for the walls. These are not frescos. They were painted directly onto mud walls.

Dunhuang was strategically located on the Silk Road, the primary trade route between China and the West. The caves with their paintings depicting the spiritual path of Siddartha Gautama, or Buddha, offered solace and lessons on the possibilities of enlightenment. Buddhism originated in India and evolved in China along with existing Daoist beliefs. Over the centuries, under the rule of sequential dynasties, wealthy patrons would subsidize the decoration of individual caves and are portrayed in wall paintings as following spiritual teachings just as Western patrons were in Renaissance paintings of the 15th century in Europe.

After the 1400's, the caves were abandoned gradually due to shifts in population and increased trading by sea instead of by the old Silk Road but one cave housing a library of ancient sutras, documents and devotional art was sealed off. In 1900, it was discovered by a Chinese monk. As European explorers and scholars heard of the trove, much of this fragile material was removed to museums and other repositories.

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Diamond Sutra, 868 CE
Ink on paper
London, British Library
Copyright © The British Library Board

The exhibition at the Getty Research Institute includes a selection of these materials including the rare 9th century Diamond Sutra, a sacred text, on loan from the British Museum, and considered to be the world's oldest dated complete printed book.

There is also a virtual cave, a representation that can be seen in 3-D while wearing a headset with an audio guide.

The experience does not compare to that of seeing original devotional sculptures or even visiting the replicated caves but apparently even the Getty wants to jump into the realm of immersive digital experience.

The Getty has extended hours for summer, open until 9pm on Friday and Saturday and until 7pm on Sundays. The museum is free, as usual, but entry to the caves requires a special timed entry pass that can be picked up at a table at the top of the main staircase. While waiting your turn you can visit the GRI exhibition, the “virtual immersive experience,” or other exhibitions.