Tributes in Stone: The Longmen Caves, China

Henan province, China is the site of the famed Longmen (“Dragon Gate”) Caves, that house some of the finest examples of Chinese Buddhist art. The caves are located 12 km southwest of the ancient capital of Luoyang and represent the eastern extremity of the Silk Road.  

Situated at the foot of a rocky escarpment along a 1km stretch of rock on a river, the cave site is monumental, hemmed by a honeycomb of more than 2300 grottoes and niches, each one carved by hand into steep limestone cliffs. More impressive are the monumental Buddhas statutes, some towering more than 17m high. The niches themselves contain almost 110,000 Buddhist statutes, over 60 stupas and 2800 inscriptions carved on steles. The entire effort took over 200 years to complete.

Luoyang was the capital during the late Northern Wei Dynasty and early Tang Dynasty. The most intensive period of carving dates over these dynasties, from the end of the 5th century to the mid-8th century. As the work took centuries to complete, it is possible to trace changes in artistic styles from the Wei to the Tang periods. The sculptural styles of the Tang Dynasty in the 7th and 8th centuries, especially the giant statutes of the Buddha and spiritual guardians, are the most impressive examples of the artistic style of the High Tang period. But both the earlier “Central China Style” and the later “Great Tang Style” had a measurable influence within China as well as throughout the world, thanks to the transmission of ideas made possible by the Silk Road that traversed from eastern China all the way to the Mediterranean region.

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This imposing group of nine monumental images carved into the hard, gray limestone of Fengxian Temple at Longmen is a spectacular display of innovative style and iconography. Sponsored by the Tang Emperor Gaozong (reign: 649-83) and his wife, the future Empress Wu, the high relief sculptures are widely spaced in a semi-circle. The central Vairocana Buddha (more than 55 feet high including its pedestal) is flanked on either side by a bodhisattva,  a heavenly king, and a thunderbolt holder (vajrapani). Vairocana represents the primordial Buddha who generates and presides over all the Buddhas of the infinite universes that form Buddhist cosmology. This idea—of the power of one supreme deity over all the others—resonated in the vast Tang Empire which was dominated by the Emperor at its summit and supported by his subordinate officials. These monumental sculptures intentionally mirrored the political situation.

Tang emperor, Goazong reigned from 649 to his death at age 55 in 683.

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