Groundbreaking Exhibit of Chinese Temple Sculpture Artifacts Opens

Standing Bodhisattva Avalokite vara (Guanyin), Xiangtangshan: Southern Group of Caves

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 opens 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 China’s 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 site’s 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 Chicago’s 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: “While 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.”

Carved into the limestone mountains of Hebei province in northern China, the Buddhist cave temples of Xiangtangshan (which translates as “Mountain of Echoing Halls”) 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.

Exhibition Overview

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.

In addition, visitors to the exhibition have the unprecedented opportunity to virtually “walk through” 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.

Exhibition Tour, Organization, and Sponsorship

ISAW is the final venue for this exhibition, which was organized by the Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago, and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D. C. It has been seen at the Smart Museum; the Sackler Gallery; The Meadows Museum, Southern Methodist University, Dallas; and The San Diego Museum of Art.

Echoes of the Past is curated by Katherine R. Tsiang, Associate Director of the Center for the Art of East Asia, University of Chicago, in consultation with J. Keith Wilson, Associate Director and Curator of Ancient Chinese Art, Freer and Sackler Galleries, and Richard A. Born, Senior Curator, Smart Museum of Art. The ISAW presentation is curated by Peter De Staebler, Assistant Curator.

Major funding is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Leon Levy Foundation, the Smart Family Foundation, and the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation. The catalogue was made possible by Fred Eychaner and Tommy Yang Guo, with additional support from Furthermore: a program of the J. M. Kaplan Fund.