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Gallery Text

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
Seated Buddha (probably Shakyamuni)
Other Titles
Alternate Title: Sakyamuni
Work Type
figure, sculpture
early 8th century
Creation Place: East Asia, China, Shanxi province, Tianlongshan
Tang dynasty, 618-907
Level 1, Room 1610, Buddhist Sculpture, Buddhism and Early East Asian Buddhist Art
View this object's location on our interactive map
Physical Descriptions
Light gray sandstone with traces of polychromy; from north wall of Tianlongshan Cave 21, near Taiyuan, Shanxi province
H. 109.5 x W. 75 x D. 47 cm (43 1/8 x 29 1/2 x 18 1/2 in.)
Weight 699 lb.
[Yamanaka & Co., New York, May 11, 1936] sold; to Grenville L. Winthrop, New York (1936-1943), 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
Object Number
Asian and Mediterranean Art
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Seated Buddha, both hands missing. From north wall of cave 21 at Tianlongshan, Shanxi province
Publication History

Kristin A. Mortimer and William G. Klingelhofer, Harvard University Art Museums: A Guide to the Collections, Harvard University Art Museums and Abbeville Press (Cambridge and New York, 1986), no. 22, p. 28

Li Yuqun, "A New Understanding of the Tang Dynasty Grottoes at Tianlongshan", Orientations, Orientations Magazine Ltd. (Hong Kong, May 2002), vol. 34, no. 5, pp. 48-53, p. 50, fig. 5

Stephan Wolohojian and Alvin L. Clark, Jr., Harvard Art Museum/ Handbook, ed. Stephan Wolohojian, Harvard Art Museum (Cambridge, 2008), p. 35

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, 11/01/2014

Subjects and Contexts

Collection Highlights

Google Art Project

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