For a thousand years, people came to the Daquan River near Dunhuang, in north-west China, to build – and renovate – hundreds of Buddhist temples cut into the cliff face. With their richly painted walls and ceilings, and graceful sculpture, the Mogao Caves – and their counterparts to the east, the Yulin Caves – present a trove of Buddhist art from the 4th to the 14th century AD, well preserved thanks to the dry, desert conditions. These spectacular but remote shrines were commissioned by monks, prominent families, and groups of merchants from Dunhuang, which, with its important position on the Silk Road, had become a flourishing trading town by the 5th century AD.
The oldest of the Mogao Caves temples that survive date from around AD 420. Among them is Cave 275, built during the Northern Laing period (AD 420-439). It is a detail of the north wall of the cave that we see here: a decorated niche shaped like a monumental que-tower, an ancient ceremonial structure used to mark the entrance to a special space like a temple or palace. Within sits a small sculpture of Maitreya, a bodhisattva who would be reborn as the future Buddha. The composition, with two small, haloed figures (perhaps monks) painted on either side of Maitreya, may be informed by reliefs from the Gandhara region of north-west Pakistan, showing how distant influences converged at the Silk Road site.
The atmospheric image is one of more than 3,000 taken on a 1943-44 expedition to the caves at Mogao and Yulin. The venture was a personal project by James Lo, a photojournalist with Central News Agency in Chongqing, with his wife Lucy, also a photographer at the agency, and another photojournalist, Gu Tingpeng. Though lacking in the bright colours that appear in modern imagery of the site, their remarkable and prolific output, particularly the many close-up shots, has long been useful for study of the details of the murals, sculptures, and inscriptions, as well as their style and technique.
The photographs and the accompanying notebooks of contact-sheets, all safeguarded and catalogued by Lucy Lo, form the Lo Archive, which is held at the Tang Center for East Asian Art at Princeton University. They are now appearing in print in a landmark 9-volume publication.
The full 9-volume edition has recently been published as Visualizing Dunhuang: the Lo Archive photographs of the Mogao and Yulin Caves, edited by Dora C Y Ching, Princeton University Press (ISBN 978-0691208152, price £1,200).
The 9th volume has also been issued by Princeton University Press as a standalone paperback publication, Visualizing Dunhuang: seeing, studying, and conserving the caves (ISBN 978-0691208169, price £50).
IMAGE CREDIT: Lo Archive photograph, 1943–44. Princeton University (Lo 275-5). From Visualizing Dunhuang: The Lo Archive photographs of the Mogao and Yulin Caves, published by Princeton University Press and reprinted here by permission.