Mathilde HK at OCS – Lecture on the Dunhuang caves

Oriental Ceramic Society  LECTURE 

From Dunhuang to the Getty Center – Buddhist Cave Temples and their Art,  by Mimi Gardner Gates,  (Mimi Gardner Gates, now Director Emerita, was Director of the Seattle Art Museum for fifteen years (1994-2009).

large Buddha looking up from below-1

Monumental Buddha, Buddhist Caves of Dunhuang, Cave 130
Chinese, Tang Dynasty, 8th century, Courtesy of the Dunhuang Academy

At the OCS – September 17, 2015 : The lecture is matching the organisation of a week study trip organised by the OCS to Dunhuang, from 13 to 18 October 2015.

The purpose of the talk was to give us a preview of the coming exhibition on Dunhuang caves at the Getty Museum in L.A. Mimi also raised our attention on the Dunhuang fondation created in 2010 in order to protect the site and pursue archeological and historical research there.


Map of Dunhuang on the silk road, picture@maplocator

Where is Dunhuang?
In Gansu province, on the trade roads to Mediterranean markets. Dunhuang is in Northern China, between Nepal, India, Russia and China, on the Silk road, which was a highly hub from the 4th to the 14th centuries. This place is seen as the Confluence of 4 major cultures at that time: Gandhara, India, Nepal and China.

Series of cave complexes exist in Dunhuang: they all are overseen by the fondation. Among 5 sites, 2 caves are the best preserved, that is to say: The YULIN Caves, mainly from 10-13th c, and the Northern caves of MOGAO with in total 719 caves carved in rocks.


Yulin caves,


Magao caves,

The sites are friendly to visitors, with hundreds of ancient caves vastly painted with wallpapers and hand paintings. They date from 5th to 14th century, end of Yuan dynasty. After the fall of the Mongol dynasty, the site and the roads were abandoned but the caves survived. The place was sacred and has a strong spiritual dimension but hasn’t been discovered until recently.

Our lecturer exposed the  struggle she encountered with her team about making an exhibition in the USA about Danhuang without all the authentic objects, after the model of the exhibition hold at the Heritage Museum in HK, in partnership with the Dunhuang Academy. The exhibition will be next year at the Getty’s. The conversation institute of the Getty worked on the caves and it explained how much interest they had on that site.

Where do the objects from the exhibition come from?

On June 22 ,1900, some locals made the discovery of the so called Library cave: they fund 40 000 objects in a sealed cave in Dunhuang region. Why was it sealed up? No one knew, but it was a huge discovery. The monks did not found any Chinese officials to pay attention about it, but some Westerners did, such as: Sir Marc Aurel Stein and Paul Pelliot, who visited the caves and purchased items for their countries. The objects entered top rank collections then.

J. Paul Getty Museum Los Angeles CA Aerial photogroahy by Stefen Turner
J. Paul Getty Museum Los Angeles CA Aerial photograhy, by Stefen Turner

According to that fact, the Getty’s curators concentrated on objects from France and the UK. Silks and papers, forming a massive proportion of the collections, are very fragile though, the museums did not show them very often and the library cave content hasn’t been on display very often so far. The Getty wanted to avoid damages, so Mimi explained there will be 3 replica caves within the exhibition, they were made in Dunhuang by artists.

What kind of treasure lies in Dunhuang?

An inscription states that the carving started during the 5th century but we dont know exactly, they were dedicated to spirituality, prayers and sacred texts.

Among the many loans from the two countries previously quoted, one can underline the following fragile piece: A 868 woodblock -printed book called the Diamond Sutra, on display at the British Library.


Diamond Sutra. Cave 17, Dunhuang, ink on paper
British Library Or.8210/P.2
Copyright © The British Library Board

The Dunhuang fondation numbered a huge amount of sculptures and paintings on the site, which were made either with pounces or free hand-sketches. Most of them were found within the Library Cave, but since  no one collected drawings in China, they remained untouched and allowed the art historians to reconstruct the missing parts.

The lecture focused on the conservation and restauration issues at Dunhuang and Mimi made us understand it would be a more detailed chapter of the L.A exhibition next year, which should be very interesting.


“Cave Temples of Dunhuang: Buddhist Art on China’s Silk Road
敦煌莫高窟 – May 7–September 4, 2016  The Mogao caves, located near the town of Dunhuang in the Gobi Desert of northwest China, comprise some 500 decorated Buddhist cave temples dating from the 4th to the 14th century. Filled with exquisite wall paintings and sculptures, the caves bear witness to the intense religious, artistic, and cultural exchanges along the Silk Road, the trade routes linking East and West. Cave Temples of Dunhuang: Buddhist Art on China’s Silk Road features numerous objects originally from the site—such as paintings and manuscripts that have rarely, if ever, traveled to the United States, as well as three spectacular full-size cave replicas. The exhibition celebrates more than 25 years of collaboration between the Getty Conservation Institute and the Dunhuang Academy to preserve this UNESCO World Heritage Site.”


One thought on “Mathilde HK at OCS – Lecture on the Dunhuang caves”

  1. Carved into the clifffs above tthe Dachuan River, the Mogao Caves south-east oof the Dunhhuang oasis,
    Gansu Province, comprise the largest, most richly endowed,
    and longest used treasure house of Budddhist art iin the world.
    It was first constructed iin 366AD andd represents the great achievement of Buddhist art from the 4th to the 14th century.
    492 caves are presently preserved, housing about 45,000 square meters of murals
    and more than 2,000 painted sculptures. Cavee 302 of the Sui dynasty contains one of the oldest and most
    vivid scenes of cultural exchanges along the Silk Road, depicting a camel pulling a cat typical of trade missions
    of that period. Caves 23 and 156 of the Tang dynasty show workers iin the fields and a line of warriors respectively aand in the Sonng dynasty Cave
    61, the celebrated landscape of Mount Wutai is an early example oof artistic Chinese cartography, where
    nothing has been left outt – mountains, rivers, cities,
    temples, riads and caravans are alll depicted.

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