Our project "Merit, Opulence and the Buddhist Network of Wealth" concentrates on one specific period of artistic brilliance when these cultural traditions were most evident. During the 10th century, when the region became independent as the Tang empire collapsed to the East, the arts industries were professionalized. Their restructuring and expansion was the result of political decentralization but also the accumulated demand for devotional objects from lay Buddhist patrons. The very notion of the icon, a conduit of sacred power, came to Inner Asia and China with Buddhism. Pagodas, meditation banners, and mundane objects such as the chair, sugar and tea which were used in monastic settings, are other examples of how Buddhism contributed to the fabric of Chinese visual and material culture. The practice of giving gifts to the sangha (community of monks and nuns) to gain spiritual merit manifested a materially rich temple environment. The largess was matched by a visual aesthetic of opulence. Paradise scenes depicted in flamboyantly rich palettes fill the 3-dimensional world of the cave-shrine painted with scenes on all four sides and in the ceilings. The intricate pictorial programs and the idiom of opulence were manifestations of the Buddhist network of wealth.
Under the direction of Sarah E. Fraser, specialists in art history, archaeology, religious studies, history and decorative arts from China, America, Europe and Taiwan will conduct fieldwork in China and produce a book-length volume on the opulence in Buddhist art and monastic culture. The electronic edition of this text will form the core of our project web site. On-site investigations will also include three regions of Sichuan, where a similar trend occurred in the 10th century, expanding the implications of our work to hundreds of sites throughout western China.
Woodblock printed copy of the Diamond Sutra found in Dunhuang's Library cave 17, ca. 940's. © Bibliothèque Nationale de France.
Vairocana (Cosmic Buddha) Mandala. Drawing. Dunhuang, cave 17. © Bibliothèque Nationale de France.