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Inspired by Indian religious practices — and by tales of the Buddha imprinting his shadow on a cave wall — Chinese adherents of Buddhism created elaborate cave temples at sites in north China from the fifth to twelfth centuries. Hewn into limestone or sandstone cliffs, they ranged in size from small grottoes of only a few square feet (which were typically used as private meditation spaces by monks) to massive temples featuring monumental sculptures. Interiors were embellished with murals and sculptures carved from the rock walls. In sponsoring such sites, social elites, including emperors and their families, displayed their piety, as well as their political ambition and power.

The large Seated Buddha and five sculptural reliefs here come from Tianlongshan, near the city of Taiyuan in Shanxi Province. From the sixth through eighth centuries, approximately twenty-five caves were carved into the cliffs there. The caves had relief sculptures on each wall — often a buddha in a niche flanked by bodhisattvas and other devotional figures. Apsarases, angel-like beings that appear in celebration of auspicious events, decorated the ceilings. To increase their sense of lifelike presence and visibility in the dim cave light, they were brightly painted, as evidenced by the traces of pigment found on the Seated Buddha and others of these figures.

Identification and Creation
Object Number
1943.53.16
Title
Flying Apsaras Holding a Bowl
Classification
Sculpture
Work Type
sculpture, relief
Date
534-550
Places
Creation Place: East Asia, China, Shanxi province, Tianlongshan
Period
Eastern Wei, 534-550
Culture
Chinese
Persistent Link
https://hvrd.art/o/204138
Location
Level 1, Room 1610, Buddhist Sculpture, Buddhism and Early East Asian Buddhist Art
View this object's location on our interactive map
Physical Descriptions
Medium
Sandstone; from Tianlongshan Cave 3, near Taiyuan, Shanxi province
Dimensions
H. 76.3 x W. 69.2 cm (30 1/16 x 27 1/4 in.)
Provenance
Grenville L. Winthrop, New York (by 1943), bequest; to Fogg Art Museum, 1943.
Acquisition and Rights
Credit Line
Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Bequest of Grenville L. Winthrop
Accession Year
1943
Object Number
1943.53.16
Division
Asian and Mediterranean Art
Contact
am_asianmediterranean@harvard.edu
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Descriptions
Description
Flying divinity with trailing scarves holding a bowl in his right hand, flying toward left and looking back over his right shoulder. Low sandstone relief from the ceiling of cave 3 (north panel) at Tianlongshan, Shanxi province.
Publication History

Tianlongshan Caves Project, website, Center for the Art of East Asia, The University of Chicago, accessed April 7, 2021, https://tls.uchicago.edu/single-sculpture/164

Exhibition History

S426: Chinese Buddhist Cave Sculpture, Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Cambridge, 10/20/1985 - 04/30/2008

Re-View: S228-230 Arts of Asia, Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Cambridge, 05/31/2008 - 06/01/2013

32Q: 1610 Buddhist Art I, Harvard Art Museums, 11/16/2014 - 01/01/2050

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3D Model: Flying Apsaras Holding a Bowl

This record has been reviewed by the curatorial staff but may be incomplete. Our records are frequently revised and enhanced. For more information please contact the Division of Asian and Mediterranean Art at am_asianmediterranean@harvard.edu