VIRTUAL COLLECTION OF ASIAN MASTERPIECES

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Avalokiteśvara
1919,0101,0.14
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Why this is a
Masterpiece

Painting of Avalokiteśvara standing on a lotus between two smaller figures. To the left, with shaved head, is the deceased Very Reverend Nun, Yanhui, identified by an inscription on the back. To the right, the young man holding a plate with a lotus is the deceased Probationary Chamberlain Zhang Youcheng, named in the cartouche above him. He was the younger brother of the writer of the inscriptions. Three cartouches on the front, two on the back. As is clear from the outset from the lengthy and well-written inscriptions, a great deal of care was lavished on the execution of this small votive painting of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. The principal inscription is on a green cartouche in the upper right-hand corner, in three columns starting on the left (Fig.7): Praise to the great merciful, great compassionate saviour from hardship Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, in perpetual offering. Offered in the hope that the Empire may be peaceful and that the Wheel of the Law may continually turn therein. Secondly, on behalf of my elder sister and teacher, on behalf of the souls of my deceased parents, that they may be born again in the Pure Land, I reverently made this Great Holy One and with whole heart dedicated it. (Translation adapted from Waley, 1931, p. 26, who reads the columns in reverse order.) 爲亡考妣神生淨土敬造大聖一心供養 奉爲 國界清平法輸常轉二爲阿姉師 南無大慈大悲救苦觀世音菩薩永充供養 The other inscriptions, including two additional ones on paper attached to the back of the painting (Fig. 8), identify the “elder sister and teacher” of this inscription as the deceased Very Reverend nun Yanhui, admitter to the Dharma and Vinaya in the monastery of Universal Light, who is seen on the left, while the very young man on the right is named as the probationary Chamberlain Zhang Youcheng, younger brother of the donor (Pl.7-3). Terukazu Akiyamu has kindly drawn my attention to the fact that the two longer inscriptions end with the formal phrase “finished and inscribed”畢功記: We shall find that this careful formality and stylization extends to the pictorial execution as well. The pink flesh tones used for the boy’s face are the same as those employed for the Bodhisattva (Pl.7-2). In the latter, the delicacy with which these tones are shaded and the darker outlines of the same colour have the effect of a pattern. We can note the symmetry of these outlines in the neck or at the elbow, while the blue hair envelops the shoulders in an airy tracery that is quite unlike the spreading locks on the shoulders of ninth century Bodhisattvas as seen in Vol. 1 (e.g., Pl.16-2). The face, as Waley observed, is perhaps disproportionately large, but it has lost the solidity still to be seen in the Bodhisattvas of the mid-ninth century (Vol. 1, Pl.23-3); and its outline has changed from oval to something almost rectangular. The eyebrows, in green lines sharply angled downwards to the nose, reflect this change, and the ink line of the mouth is sharply hooked at either end, a feature that will be exaggerated in later tenth century paintings. Some of these features may be helpful in attempting to date other works: the fine representation of Ksitigarbha (Pl. 8) is one such painting where the resemblance, particularly in colouring, suggests a similar date.

History of the Object
Several features of the picture deserve attention, particularly in view of the fact that it is dated; indeed the date itself, which appears in the longer inscription on the painting and again on the back, is of interest, since it is given as the tenth year of Tianfu, while that reign only lasted four years and the Tang Dynasty itself had been deposed in A.D. 906. Evidently Dunhuang was fairly isolated from events in China at this time; nevertheless, under the patronage of powerful local families, such as the Cao 曹 family who were prominent at this time, caves continued to be opened on a grand scale. The ostentation of the time is perhaps evident here in the attention lavished on the nun Yanhui and the young boy. The inscription on the back makes it clear that they were intended as portraits, since the words 貌真 are used twice. In actual fact, of course, the two figures are almost as much standard types as the donors seen in other paintings, but they are sensitively painted and must accurately represent the costume of the time. The brightly coloured band across the chest of the nun’s garment and the black slipper with cloud-shaped toe, trimmed with red, add a touch of vanity, while the bright blue of her shaven head matches well with the azure locks of the Bodhisattva. The dress of the youthful chamberlain, the long black coat parted to the waist to reveal an under-robe of lighter colour (Pl.7-3), is of a type that will become familiar in many other tenth century donors.

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Type
Painting 
Materials
Ink and colours on silk 
Measurements
Width 38.9 cm Height 77.0 cm  
Creator name
Unknown 
Creator date
Unknown 
Where it was made
China 
Geography
China 
Time period
AD 10th century ~ AD 10th century 
Creation date
10th Century; 910 
Function
Votive painting 
Acquisition
From Qian Fo Dong 千佛洞, Cave 17. Collected by Sir Marc Aurel Stein 
Copyright
Copyright the Trustees of the British Museum 
Acknowledgements
 
Owner
British Museum 
Museum
British Museum 
Credit line
 

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