Dunhuang Caves and the Aesthetics of Scale

28 October 20221 - Neil Schmid (Dunhuang)
Dunhuang Caves and the Aesthetics of Scale
invited lecture at the BuddhistRoad project, CERES, Ruhr-Universität Bochum

The Mogao Caves (Chin. Mogao ku 莫高窟) contain dozens of miniature caves dating from the Tang and Five Dynasties periods. Though at 1/10th the size and thus too small to hold any ritual practice, these miniature caves replicate in perfect detail the visual programs of larger caves. Scholars have neglected these diminutive creations as a distinct phenomenon, and as of yet no research exists on the topic. This talk provides the first thorough analysis of these small-scale caves, outlining their typologies and content, as well as their distribution among larger caves. Crucial to this exploration is the concept of scale in medieval Chinese religion and art, and its importance in revealing how such caves functioned conceptually and ritually. Finally, through a detailed comparison of form and visuality, we explore how it is impossible to fully understand the Mogao Caves as a sacred site without full consideration of these striking miniatures.

Neil Schmid is Research Professor at the Dunhuang Academy. His scholarship centres on Dunhuang and explores a range of topics, including the role of Buddhist literature in ritual and art, medieval economic development, Esoteric Buddhism (Chin. mijiao, 密教), and the ritual aesthetics of painting and architectural space of the Mogao Caves. He is currently at work on several monographs, including From Byzantium to Japan: Ritual Objects and Religious Exchanges Across Eurasia in Late Antiquity, tracing the flow of exotic goods and ritual paraphernalia along the Silk Road, and the first-ever critical bibliographical survey of Dunhuang materials, entitled The Comprehensive Guide to Scholarly Resources for Dunhuang Studies.

Report of the guest lecture