Longmen Grottoes: Fine Example of Chinese Buddhist Art

The world-famous Longmen Grottoes is located 12km south of Luoyang, Henan Province. Longmen means Dragon Gate and the scenery in Longmen is the best of all in Luoyang. Here two mountains, namely East Hill (Mountain Xiangshan) and West Hill (Mountain Longmen), confront each other with the Yi River traversing northward between them, Just like a pair of Chinese Gate Tower.

Longmen Grottoes

Longmen Grottoes were first sculptured and chiseled around 493 A.D. when Emperor Xiaowen of the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534) moved the capital to Luoyang. The entire construction of Longmen Grottoes lasted more than 400 years until the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127). Today, there are still 2,345 caves and niches, 3,600 inscriptions, 100,000 Buddhist images ranging in size from 2 cm to 17.14m, more than 2,800 inscribed tablets, and 50 Buddhist pagodas remaining in both East Hill and West Hill. All of these show the high aesthetic achievements ancient Chinese attained.

Stretching along the precipitous cliff of the southern side of West Hill, Fengxian Temple, also named Grand Vairocana Buddha Niche, is the largest cave in Longmen. Measuring 35m in width and 39m in length, this cave was carved over 1,300 years ago during the Tang Dynasty. When it was first constructed, the entire grotto was covered with a roof and enclosed from natural elements. Today the roof is missing and the sculptures stand out in the open air. The most extraordinary statue in Fengxian Temple is the Grand Vairocana Buddha, which is 17.14m tall with her head 4m long and her ear 1.9m wide. Sitting in the middle of the niche, this colossal Buddha shows a perfect combination of moral integrity, delicate emotions, broad mind and elegant semblance. Her lips are slightly upturned, her head is a little bit lowered, and a slight smile makes her look like a sagacious and kind middle-aged woman whom you would respect but no fear. It is said that the statue was modeled after the face of Empress Wu Zetian, the only female emperor in Chinese history, so people also call it Empress Wu ’s Statue. Furthermore, due to the gentle facial expression, this statue is reputed as the “Eastern Mona Lisa”, the “Eastern Venus”, and the “Mother of China”. On each side, the Buddha is flanked by an Ananda, a Bodhisattva, a Heavenly King and a Vajra. Of the two disciples (Anada), one looks prudent and experienced, and the other compliant and pious. Both Bodhisattvas are well dressed up in splendid attire and a dignified appearance. Beside them is the Heavenly King holding the Divine Pagoda while the Vajras look unruly and ferocious.

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Another famous cave here is Binyang Cave. Taking 24 years to be built, the cave boasts the longest building period. Among 11 Buddhas in the cave, the most important one is the dignified and serene Sakyamuni accompanied by disciples and Bodhisattvas. Other Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are heavily Persian-styled for their slim appearance, big eyes, flat necks and detailed garment textures. The ceiling is decorated with ethereal Flying Apsaras, which are masterpieces of stone carving in the middle of Northern Wei Dynasty. Originally there were two large embossments about imperial life in the cave, namely “The Pilgrimage of the Emperor” and “The Pilgrimage of the Queen”, which are endowed with high aesthetic value for the grand occasion and the exquisite carvings. But unfortunately, they were smuggled.

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In the south of Binyang Cave sits Wanfo Cave, in which there are 1,500 lesser Buddhist sculptures ranging from one inch to several centimeters in heights. In the front wall, the Bodhisattva sits on an octagonal lotus, which is supported by four Vajras. The back wall is decorated by 54 lotus carvings, and every lotus is topped by the Bodhisattva or the patron. In addition, graceful and vivid musicians in relief are available on the ceiling, and an elegant Guanyin (Avalokitesvara) Statue with a tiny vase lights up the southern wall near the entrance.

Longmen Grottoes is not only reputed for exquisite Buddhist carvings, but also for calligraphies. Of the 3,600 calligraphic works in a myriad of caves, the “twenty pieces of calligraphic works” at Longmen are the most outstanding symbols of the fine cultural heritage of China and the most influential in the academic and calligraphic world at home and abroad. Moreover, 19 of the “Twenty Calligraphies” are in Guyang Cave, and the other one is in Cixiang niche on the cliff of Laolong Cave in the mid-south of the West Hill.

Guyang Cave, sculpted between 495 and 575 A.D., is regarded as the earliest of Longmen Grottoes. Based on a natural limestone cave, this cave is the most important cave in the series and represents the highest skill of carving, rock painting, and architecture of Northern Wei Dynasty. Using the style which prevailed in Northern Wei Dynasty, the chief Buddha, delicate and lifelike, is sitting in his meditation on an altar with two lions at his feet. Guyang Cave is also well-known for an abundance of tiny niches and detailed carvings.

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And there is also a Yaofang Cave with 140 carved prescriptions, reflecting the achievement of ancient Chinese medicine. It is an important way of passing down the ancient medical experiences to inscribe the prescriptions on the tablets or in the caves.

Maintaining a great deal of material evidences for religion, fine art, calligraphy, music, apparel, medicine, architecture and exchange activities, Longmen Grottoes is deemed as a large museum for the art of stone carving. Alongside with Mogao Caves in Dunhuang of Gansu Province and Yungang Grottoes in Datong of Shanxi Province, Longmen Grottoes is praised as one of the three major treasure houses of stone carving in China.

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